As we walked up the sidewalk, we saw a solitary light burning in the distance. “That’s funny,” said Jem, “jail doesn’t have an outside light.”
“Looks like it’s over the door,” said Dill.
A long extension cord ran between the bars of a second-floor window and down the side of the building. In the light from its bare bulb, Atticus was sitting propped against the front door. He was sitting in one of his office chairs, and he was reading, oblivious of the nightbugs dancing over his head.
I made to run, but Jem caught me. “Don’t go to him,” he said, “he might not like it. He’s all right, let’s go home. I just wanted to see where he was.”
We were taking a short cut across the square when four dusty cars came in from the Meridian highway, moving slowly in a line. They went around the square, passed the bank building, and stopped in front of the jail.
Nobody got out. We saw Atticus look up from his newspaper. He closed it, folded it deliberately, dropped it in his lap, and pushed his hat to the back of his head. He seemed to be expecting them.
“Come on,” whispered Jem. We streaked across the square, across the street, until we were in the shelter of the Jitney Jungle door. Jem peeked up the sidewalk. “We can get closer,” he said. We ran to Tyndal’s Hardware door—near enough, at the same time discreet.
In ones and twos, men got out of the cars. Shadows became substance as light revealed solid shapes moving toward the jail door. Atticus remained where he was. The men hid him from view.
“He in there, Mr. Finch?” a man said.
“He is,” we heard Atticus answer, “and he’s asleep. Don’t wake him up.”
In obedience to my father, there followed what I later realized was a sickeningly comic aspect of an unfunny situation: the men talked in near-whispers.
“You know what we want,” another man said. “Get aside from the door, Mr. Finch.”
“You can turn around and go home again, Walter,” Atticus said pleasantly. “Heck Tate’s around somewhere.”
“The hell he is,” said another man. “Heck’s bunch’s so deep in the woods they won’t get out till mornin’.”
“Indeed? Why so?”
“Called ’em off on a snipe hunt,” was the succinct answer. “Didn’t you think a’that, Mr. Finch?”
“Thought about it, but didn’t believe it. Well then,” my father’s voice was still the same, “that changes things, doesn’t it?”
“It do,” another deep voice said. Its owner was a shadow.
“Do you really think so?”
This was the second time I heard Atticus ask that question in two days, and it meant somebody’s man would get jumped. This was too good to miss. I broke away from Jem and ran as fast as I could to Atticus.
Jem shrieked and tried to catch me, but I had a lead on him and Dill. I pushed my way through dark smelly bodies and burst into the circle of light.
I thought he would have a fine surprise, but his face killed my joy. A flash of plain fear was going out of his eyes, but returned when Dill and Jem wriggled into the light.
There was a smell of stale whiskey and pigpen about, and when I glanced around I discovered that these men were strangers. They were not the people I saw last night. Hot embarrassment shot through me: I had leaped triumphantly into a ring of people I had never seen before.
Atticus got up from his chair, but he was moving slowly, like an old man. He put the newspaper down very carefully, adjusting its creases with lingering fingers. They were trembling a little.
“Go home, Jem,” he said. “Take Scout and Dill home.”
We were accustomed to prompt, if not always cheerful acquiescence to Atticus’s instructions, but from the way he stood Jem was not thinking of budging.
“Go home, I said.”
Jem shook his head. As Atticus’s fists went to his hips, so did Jem’s, and as they faced each other I could see little resemblance between them: Jem’s soft brown hair and eyes, his oval face and snugfitting ears were our mother’s contrasting oddly with Atticus’s graying black hair and square-cut features, but they were somehow alike. Mutual defiance made them alike.
“Son, I said go home.”
Jem shook his head.
“I’ll send him home,” a burly man said, and grabbed Jem roughly by the collar. He yanked Jem nearly off his feet.
“Don’t you touch him!” I kicked the man swiftly. Barefooted, I was surprised to see him fall back in real pain. I intended to kick his shin, but aimed too high.