To Kill a Mockingbird (Page 17)
Jem leaped off the porch and galloped toward us. He flung open the gate, danced Dill and me through, and shooed us between two rows of swishing collards. Halfway through the collards I tripped; as I tripped the roar of a shotgun shattered the neighborhood.
Dill and Jem dived beside me. Jem’s breath came in sobs: “Fence by the schoolyard!—hurry, Scout!”
Jem held the bottom wire; Dill and I rolled through and were halfway to the shelter of the schoolyard’s solitary oak when we sensed that Jem was not with us. We ran back and found him struggling in the fence, kicking his pants off to get loose. He ran to the oak tree in his shorts.
Safely behind it, we gave way to numbness, but Jem’s mind was racing: “We gotta get home, they’ll miss us.”
We ran across the schoolyard, crawled under the fence to Deer’s Pasture behind our house, climbed our back fence and were at the back steps before Jem would let us pause to rest.
Respiration normal, the three of us strolled as casually as we could to the front yard. We looked down the street and saw a circle of neighbors at the Radley front gate.
“We better go down there,” said Jem. “They’ll think it’s funny if we don’t show up.”
Mr. Nathan Radley was standing inside his gate, a shotgun broken across his arm. Atticus was standing beside Miss Maudie and Miss Stephanie Crawford. Miss Rachel and Mr. Avery were near by. None of them saw us come up.
We eased in beside Miss Maudie, who looked around. “Where were you all, didn’t you hear the commotion?”
“What happened?” asked Jem.
“Mr. Radley shot at a Negro in his collard patch.”
“Oh. Did he hit him?”
“No,” said Miss Stephanie. “Shot in the air. Scared him pale, though. Says if anybody sees a white nigger around, that’s the one. Says he’s got the other barrel waitin’ for the next sound he hears in that patch, an’ next time he won’t aim high, be it dog, nigger, or—Jem Finch!”
“Ma’am?” asked Jem.
Atticus spoke. “Where’re your pants, son?”
It was no use. In his shorts before God and everybody. I sighed.
In the glare from the streetlight, I could see Dill hatching one: his eyes widened, his fat cherub face grew rounder.
“What is it, Dill?” asked Atticus.
“Ah—I won ’em from him,” he said vaguely.
“Won them? How?”
Dill’s hand sought the back of his head. He brought it forward and across his forehead. “We were playin’ strip poker up yonder by the fishpool,” he said.
Jem and I relaxed. The neighbors seemed satisfied: they all stiffened. But what was strip poker?
We had no chance to find out: Miss Rachel went off like the town fire siren: “Do-o-o Jee-sus, Dill Harris! Gamblin’ by my fishpool? I’ll strip-poker you, sir!”
Atticus saved Dill from immediate dismemberment. “Just a minute, Miss Rachel,” he said. “I’ve never heard of ’em doing that before. Were you all playing cards?”
Jem fielded Dill’s fly with his eyes shut: “No sir, just with matches.”
I admired my brother. Matches were dangerous, but cards were fatal.
“Jem, Scout,” said Atticus, “I don’t want to hear of poker in any form again. Go by Dill’s and get your pants, Jem. Settle it yourselves.”
“Don’t worry, Dill,” said Jem, as we trotted up the sidewalk, “she ain’t gonna get you. He’ll talk her out of it. That was fast thinkin’, son. Listen . . . you hear?”
We stopped, and heard Atticus’s voice: “. . . not serious . . . they all go through it, Miss Rachel. . . .”
Dill was comforted, but Jem and I weren’t. There was the problem of Jem showing up some pants in the morning.
“ ’d give you some of mine,” said Dill, as we came to Miss Rachel’s steps. Jem said he couldn’t get in them, but thanks anyway. We said good-bye, and Dill went inside the house. He evidently remembered he was engaged to me, for he ran back out and kissed me swiftly in front of Jem. “Yawl write, hear?” he bawled after us.
Had Jem’s pants been safely on him, we would not have slept much anyway. Every night-sound I heard from my cot on the back porch was magnified three-fold; every scratch of feet on gravel was Boo Radley seeking revenge, every passing Negro laughing in the night was Boo Radley loose and after us; insects splashing against the screen were Boo Radley’s insane fingers picking the wire to pieces; the china-berry trees were malignant, hovering, alive. I lingered between sleep and wakefulness until I heard Jem murmur.
“Sleep, Little Three-Eyes?”
“Are you crazy?”
“Sh-h. Atticus’s light’s out.”
In the waning moonlight I saw Jem swing his feet to the floor.
“I’m goin’ after ’em,” he said.
I sat upright. “You can’t. I won’t let you.”
He was struggling into his shirt. “I’ve got to.”
“You do an’ I’ll wake up Atticus.”
“You do and I’ll kill you.”
I pulled him down beside me on the cot. I tried to reason with him. “Mr. Nathan’s gonna find ’em in the morning, Jem. He knows you lost ’em. When he shows ’em to Atticus it’ll be pretty bad, that’s all there is to it. Go’n back to bed.”
“That’s what I know,” said Jem. “That’s why I’m goin’ after ’em.”
I began to feel sick. Going back to that place by himself—I remembered Miss Stephanie: Mr. Nathan had the other barrel waiting for the next sound he heard, be it nigger, dog . . . Jem knew that better than I.
I was desperate: “Look, it ain’t worth it, Jem. A lickin’ hurts but it doesn’t last. You’ll get your head shot off, Jem. Please . . .”
He blew out his breath patiently. “I—it’s like this, Scout,” he muttered. “Atticus ain’t ever whipped me since I can remember. I wanta keep it that way.”
This was a thought. It seemed that Atticus threatened us every other day. “You mean he’s never caught you at anything.”
“Maybe so, but—I just wanta keep it that way, Scout. We shouldn’a done that tonight, Scout.”
It was then, I suppose, that Jem and I first began to part company. Sometimes I did not understand him, but my periods of bewilderment were short-lived. This was beyond me. “Please,” I pleaded, “can’tcha just think about it for a minute—by yourself on that place—”