Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty. When Jem and I asked him why he was so old,he said he got started late, which we felt reflected upon his abilities and manliness. Hewas much older than the parents of our school contemporaries, and there was nothingJem or I could say about him when our classmates said, “My father—”
Jem was football crazy. Atticus was never too tired to play keep-away, but when Jemwanted to tackle him Atticus would say, “I’m too old for that, son.”
Our father didn’t do anything. He worked in an office, not in a drugstore. Atticus did notdrive a dump-truck for the county, he was not the sheriff, he did not farm, work in agarage, or do anything that could possibly arouse the admiration of anyone.
Besides that, he wore glasses. He was nearly blind in his left eye, and said left eyeswere the tribal curse of the Finches. Whenever he wanted to see something well, heturned his head and looked from his right eye.
He did not do the things our schoolmates’ fathers did: he never went hunting, he didnot play poker or fish or drink or smoke. He sat in the livingroom and read.
With these attributes, however, he would not remain as inconspicuous as we wishedhim to: that year, the school buzzed with talk about him defending Tom Robinson, noneof which was complimentary. After my bout with Cecil Jacobs when I committed myselfto a policy of cowardice, word got around that Scout Finch wouldn’t fight any more, herdaddy wouldn’t let her. This was not entirely correct: I wouldn’t fight publicly for Atticus,but the family was private ground. I would fight anyone from a third cousin upwardstooth and nail. Francis Hancock, for example, knew that.
When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn’t teach us to shoot. Uncle Jackinstructed us in the rudiments thereof; he said Atticus wasn’t interested in guns. Atticussaid to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll goafter birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin tokill a mockingbird.”
That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and Iasked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for usto enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do onething but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
“Miss Maudie, this is an old neighborhood, ain’t it?”
“Been here longer than the town.”
“Nome, I mean the folks on our street are all old. Jem and me’s the only childrenaround here. Mrs. Dubose is close on to a hundred and Miss Rachel’s old and so areyou and Atticus.”
“I don’t call fifty very old,” said Miss Maudie tartly. “Not being wheeled around yet, amI? Neither’s your father. But I must say Providence was kind enough to burn down thatold mausoleum of mine, I’m too old to keep it up—maybe you’re right, Jean Louise, thisis a settled neighborhood. You’ve never been around young folks much, have you?”
“Yessum, at school.”
“I mean young grown-ups. You’re lucky, you know. You and Jem have the benefit ofyour father’s age. If your father was thirty you’d find life quite different.”
“I sure would. Atticus can’t do anything…”
“You’d be surprised,” said Miss Maudie. “There’s life in him yet.”
“What can he do?”
“Well, he can make somebody’s will so airtight can’t anybody meddle with it.”
“Well, did you know he’s the best checker-player in this town? Why, down at theLanding when we were coming up, Atticus Finch could beat everybody on both sides ofthe river.”
“Good Lord, Miss Maudie, Jem and me beat him all the time.”
“It’s about time you found out it’s because he lets you. Did you know he can play aJew’s Harp?”
This modest accomplishment served to make me even more ashamed of him.
“Well…” she said.
“Well, what, Miss Maudie?”
“Well nothing. Nothing—it seems with all that you’d be proud of him. Can’t everybodyplay a Jew’s Harp. Now keep out of the way of the carpenters. You’d better go home, I’llbe in my azaleas and can’t watch you. Plank might hit you.”
I went to the back yard and found Jem plugging away at a tin can, which seemedstupid with all the bluejays around. I returned to the front yard and busied myself for twohours erecting a complicated breastworks at the side of the porch, consisting of a tire,an orange crate, the laundry hamper, the porch chairs, and a small U.S. flag Jem gaveme from a popcorn box.
When Atticus came home to dinner he found me crouched down aiming across thestreet. “What are you shooting at?”
“Miss Maudie’s rear end.”
Atticus turned and saw my generous target bending over her bushes. He pushed hishat to the back of his head and crossed the street. “Maudie,” he called, “I thought I’dbetter warn you. You’re in considerable peril.”
Miss Maudie straightened up and looked toward me. She said, “Atticus, you are adevil from hell.”
When Atticus returned he told me to break camp. “Don’t you ever let me catch youpointing that gun at anybody again,” he said.
I wished my father was a devil from hell. I sounded out Calpurnia on the subject. “Mr.
Finch? Why, he can do lots of things.”
“Like what?” I asked.
Calpurnia scratched her head. “Well, I don’t rightly know,” she said.
Jem underlined it when he asked Atticus if he was going out for the Methodists andAtticus said he’d break his neck if he did, he was just too old for that sort of thing. TheMethodists were trying to pay off their church mortgage, and had challenged theBaptists to a game of touch football. Everybody in town’s father was playing, it seemed,except Atticus. Jem said he didn’t even want to go, but he was unable to resist footballin any form, and he stood gloomily on the sidelines with Atticus and me watching CecilJacobs’s father make touchdowns for the Baptists.
One Saturday Jem and I decided to go exploring with our air-rifles to see if we couldfind a rabbit or a squirrel. We had gone about five hundred yards beyond the RadleyPlace when I noticed Jem squinting at something down the street. He had turned hishead to one side and was looking out of the corners of his eyes.
“Whatcha looking at?”
“That old dog down yonder,” he said.
“That’s old Tim Johnson, ain’t it?”
Tim Johnson was the property of Mr. Harry Johnson who drove the Mobile bus andlived on the southern edge of town. Tim was a liver-colored bird dog, the pet ofMaycomb.
“What’s he doing?”
“I don’t know, Scout. We better go home.”
“Aw Jem, it’s February.”
“I don’t care, I’m gonna tell Cal.”
We raced home and ran to the kitchen.
“Cal,” said Jem, “can you come down the sidewalk a minute?”
“What for, Jem? I can’t come down the sidewalk every time you want me.”
“There’s somethin‘ wrong with an old dog down yonder.”
Calpurnia sighed. “I can’t wrap up any dog’s foot now. There’s some gauze in thebathroom, go get it and do it yourself.”
Jem shook his head. “He’s sick, Cal. Something’s wrong with him.”
“What’s he doin‘, trying to catch his tail?”
“No, he’s doin‘ like this.”
Jem gulped like a goldfish, hunched his shoulders and twitched his torso. “He’s goin‘like that, only not like he means to.”
“Are you telling me a story, Jem Finch?” Calpurnia’s voice hardened.
“No Cal, I swear I’m not.”
“Was he runnin‘?”
“No, he’s just moseyin‘ along, so slow you can’t hardly tell it. He’s comin’ this way.”
Calpurnia rinsed her hands and followed Jem into the yard. “I don’t see any dog,” shesaid.
She followed us beyond the Radley Place and looked where Jem pointed. TimJohnson was not much more than a speck in the distance, but he was closer to us. Hewalked erratically, as if his right legs were shorter than his left legs. He reminded me ofa car stuck in a sandbed.
“He’s gone lopsided,” said Jem.
Calpurnia stared, then grabbed us by the shoulders and ran us home. She shut thewood door behind us, went to the telephone and shouted, “Gimme Mr. Finch’s office!”
“Mr. Finch!” she shouted. “This is Cal. I swear to God there’s a mad dog down thestreet a piece—he’s comin‘ this way, yes sir, he’s—Mr. Finch, I declare he is—old TimJohnson, yes sir… yessir… yes—”
She hung up and shook her head when we tried to ask her what Atticus had said. Sherattled the telephone hook and said, “Miss Eula May—now ma’am, I’m through talkin‘ toMr. Finch, please don’t connect me no more—listen, Miss Eula May, can you call MissRachel and Miss Stephanie Crawford and whoever’s got a phone on this street and tell’em a mad dog’s comin‘? Please ma’am!”
Calpurnia listened. “I know it’s February, Miss Eula May, but I know a mad dog when Isee one. Please ma’am hurry!”
Calpurnia asked Jem, “Radleys got a phone?”
Jem looked in the book and said no. “They won’t come out anyway, Cal.”
“I don’t care, I’m gonna tell ‘em.”
She ran to the front porch, Jem and I at her heels. “You stay in that house!” she yelled.
Calpurnia’s message had been received by the neighborhood. Every wood door withinour range of vision was closed tight. We saw no trace of Tim Johnson. We watchedCalpurnia running toward the Radley Place, holding her skirt and apron above herknees. She went up to the front steps and banged on the door. She got no answer, andshe shouted, “Mr. Nathan, Mr. Arthur, mad dog’s comin‘! Mad dog’s comin’!”
“She’s supposed to go around in back,” I said.
Jem shook his head. “Don’t make any difference now,” he said.
Calpurnia pounded on the door in vain. No one acknowledged her warning; no oneseemed to have heard it.
As Calpurnia sprinted to the back porch a black Ford swung into the driveway. Atticusand Mr. Heck Tate got out.
Mr. Heck Tate was the sheriff of Maycomb County. He was as tall as Atticus, butthinner. He was long-nosed, wore boots with shiny metal eye-holes, boot pants and alumber jacket. His belt had a row of bullets sticking in it. He carried a heavy rifle. Whenhe and Atticus reached the porch, Jem opened the door.
“Stay inside, son,” said Atticus. “Where is he, Cal?”
“He oughta be here by now,” said Calpurnia, pointing down the street.
“Not runnin‘, is he?” asked Mr. Tate.
“Naw sir, he’s in the twitchin‘ stage, Mr. Heck.”
“Should we go after him, Heck?” asked Atticus.
“We better wait, Mr. Finch. They usually go in a straight line, but you never can tell. Hemight follow the curve—hope he does or he’ll go straight in the Radley back yard. Let’swait a minute.”
“Don’t think he’ll get in the Radley yard,” said Atticus. “Fence’ll stop him. He’ll probablyfollow the road…”
I thought mad dogs foamed at the mouth, galloped, leaped and lunged at throats, andI thought they did it in August. Had Tim Johnson behaved thus, I would have been lessfrightened.
Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, themockingbirds were silent, the carpenters at Miss Maudie’s house had vanished. I heardMr. Tate sniff, then blow his nose. I saw him shift his gun to the crook of his arm. I sawMiss Stephanie Crawford’s face framed in the glass window of her front door. MissMaudie appeared and stood beside her. Atticus put his foot on the rung of a chair andrubbed his hand slowly down the side of his thigh.
“There he is,” he said softly.
Tim Johnson came into sight, walking dazedly in the inner rim of the curve parallel tothe Radley house.
“Look at him,” whispered Jem. “Mr. Heck said they walked in a straight line. He can’teven stay in the road.”
“He looks more sick than anything,” I said.
“Let anything get in front of him and he’ll come straight at it.”
Mr. Tate put his hand to his forehead and leaned forward. “He’s got it all right, Mr.
Tim Johnson was advancing at a snail’s pace, but he was not playing or sniffing atfoliage: he seemed dedicated to one course and motivated by an invisible force that wasinching him toward us. We could see him shiver like a horse shedding flies; his jawopened and shut; he was alist, but he was being pulled gradually toward us.
“He’s lookin‘ for a place to die,” said Jem.
Mr. Tate turned around. “He’s far from dead, Jem, he hasn’t got started yet.”
Tim Johnson reached the side street that ran in front of the Radley Place, and whatremained of his poor mind made him pause and seem to consider which road he wouldtake. He made a few hesitant steps and stopped in front of the Radley gate; then hetried to turn around, but was having difficulty.
Atticus said, “He’s within range, Heck. You better get him before he goes down theside street—Lord knows who’s around the corner. Go inside, Cal.”
Calpurnia opened the screen door, latched it behind her, then unlatched it and heldonto the hook. She tried to block Jem and me with her body, but we looked out frombeneath her arms.
“Take him, Mr. Finch.” Mr. Tate handed the rifle to Atticus; Jem and I nearly fainted.
“Don’t waste time, Heck,” said Atticus. “Go on.”
“Mr. Finch, this is a one-shot job.”
Atticus shook his head vehemently: “Don’t just stand there, Heck! He won’t wait all dayfor you—”
“For God’s sake, Mr. Finch, look where he is! Miss and you’ll go straight into theRadley house! I can’t shoot that well and you know it!”
“I haven’t shot a gun in thirty years—”
Mr. Tate almost threw the rifle at Atticus. “I’d feel mighty comfortable if you did now,”
In a fog, Jem and I watched our father take the gun and walk out into the middle of thestreet. He walked quickly, but I thought he moved like an underwater swimmer: time hadslowed to a nauseating crawl.
When Atticus raised his glasses Calpurnia murmured, “Sweet Jesus help him,” andput her hands to her cheeks.
Atticus pushed his glasses to his forehead; they slipped down, and he dropped themin the street. In the silence, I heard them crack. Atticus rubbed his eyes and chin; wesaw him blink hard.
In front of the Radley gate, Tim Johnson had made up what was left of his mind. Hehad finally turned himself around, to pursue his original course up our street. He madetwo steps forward, then stopped and raised his head. We saw his body go rigid.
With movements so swift they seemed simultaneous, Atticus’s hand yanked a ball-tipped lever as he brought the gun to his shoulder.
The rifle cracked. Tim Johnson leaped, flopped over and crumpled on the sidewalk ina brown-and-white heap. He didn’t know what hit him.
Mr. Tate jumped off the porch and ran to the Radley Place. He stopped in front of thedog, squatted, turned around and tapped his finger on his forehead above his left eye.
“You were a little to the right, Mr. Finch,” he called.
“Always was,” answered Atticus. “If I had my ‘druthers I’d take a shotgun.”
He stooped and picked up his glasses, ground the broken lenses to powder under hisheel, and went to Mr. Tate and stood looking down at Tim Johnson.
Doors opened one by one, and the neighborhood slowly came alive. Miss Maudiewalked down the steps with Miss Stephanie Crawford.
Jem was paralyzed. I pinched him to get him moving, but when Atticus saw us cominghe called, “Stay where you are.”
When Mr. Tate and Atticus returned to the yard, Mr. Tate was smiling. “I’ll have Zeebocollect him,” he said. “You haven’t forgot much, Mr. Finch. They say it never leavesyou.”
Atticus was silent.
“Atticus?” said Jem.
“I saw that, One-Shot Finch!”
Atticus wheeled around and faced Miss Maudie. They looked at one another withoutsaying anything, and Atticus got into the sheriff’s car. “Come here,” he said to Jem.
“Don’t you go near that dog, you understand? Don’t go near him, he’s just as dangerousdead as alive.”
“Yes sir,” said Jem. “Atticus—”
“What’s the matter with you, boy, can’t you talk?” said Mr. Tate, grinning at Jem.
“Didn’t you know your daddy’s—”
“Hush, Heck,” said Atticus, “let’s go back to town.”
When they drove away, Jem and I went to Miss Stephanie’s front steps. We satwaiting for Zeebo to arrive in the garbage truck.
Jem sat in numb confusion, and Miss Stephanie said, “Uh, uh, uh, who’da thought of amad dog in February? Maybe he wadn’t mad, maybe he was just crazy. I’d hate to seeHarry Johnson’s face when he gets in from the Mobile run and finds Atticus Finch’s shothis dog. Bet he was just full of fleas from somewhere—”
Miss Maudie said Miss Stephanie’d be singing a different tune if Tim Johnson was stillcoming up the street, that they’d find out soon enough, they’d send his head toMontgomery.
Jem became vaguely articulate: “‘d you see him, Scout? ’d you see him just standin‘there?… ’n‘ all of a sudden he just relaxed all over, an’ it looked like that gun was a partof him… an‘ he did it so quick, like… I hafta aim for ten minutes ’fore I can hitsomethin‘…”
Miss Maudie grinned wickedly. “Well now, Miss Jean Louise,” she said, “still think yourfather can’t do anything? Still ashamed of him?”
“Nome,” I said meekly.
“Forgot to tell you the other day that besides playing the Jew’s Harp, Atticus Finch wasthe deadest shot in Maycomb County in his time.”
“Dead shot…” echoed Jem.
“That’s what I said, Jem Finch. Guess you’ll change your tune now. The very idea,didn’t you know his nickname was Ol‘ One-Shot when he was a boy? Why, down at theLanding when he was coming up, if he shot fifteen times and hit fourteen doves he’dcomplain about wasting ammunition.”
“He never said anything about that,” Jem muttered.
“Never said anything about it, did he?”
“Wonder why he never goes huntin‘ now,” I said.
“Maybe I can tell you,” said Miss Maudie. “If your father’s anything, he’s civilized in hisheart. Marksmanship’s a gift of God, a talent—oh, you have to practice to make itperfect, but shootin’s different from playing the piano or the like. I think maybe he put hisgun down when he realized that God had given him an unfair advantage over mostliving things. I guess he decided he wouldn’t shoot till he had to, and he had to today.”
“Looks like he’d be proud of it,” I said.
“People in their right minds never take pride in their talents,” said Miss Maudie.
We saw Zeebo drive up. He took a pitchfork from the back of the garbage truck andgingerly lifted Tim Johnson. He pitched the dog onto the truck, then poured somethingfrom a gallon jug on and around the spot where Tim fell. “Don’t yawl come over here fora while,” he called.
When we went home I told Jem we’d really have something to talk about at school onMonday. Jem turned on me.
“Don’t say anything about it, Scout,” he said.
“What? I certainly am. Ain’t everybody’s daddy the deadest shot in Maycomb County.”
Jem said, “I reckon if he’d wanted us to know it, he’da told us. If he was proud of it,he’da told us.”
“Maybe it just slipped his mind,” I said.
“Naw, Scout, it’s something you wouldn’t understand. Atticus is real old, but I wouldn’tcare if he couldn’t do anything—I wouldn’t care if he couldn’t do a blessed thing.”
Jem picked up a rock and threw it jubilantly at the carhouse. Running after it, he calledback: “Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!”