The jail was in darkness, but over the jail door, a bare bulb on a long extension cord was burning. Under that bulb, Atticus was sitting in one of his office chairs, and he was reading.
I wanted to run to him, 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.»
Suddenly four dusty cars came in from a side street; they were moving slowly in a line. They went around the square, passed the bank building, and stopped in front of the jail.
Nobody got out. Atticus looked up from his newspaper. He closed it, folded it slowly, and pushed his hat to the back of his head. He was clearly expecting them.
We ran silently to Tyndal’s Hardware door. We were not seen from there, but we could see and hear well.
In ones and twos, men got out of the cars. They moved toward the jail door. Atticus remained where he was. The men hid him from our view.
«He in there, Mr. Finch?» a man said.
«He is,» Atticus answered, «and he’s asleep. Don’t wake him up.»
A comic aspect of an unfunny situation followed: 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.»
One of the men said that the sheriff and his men were out of town and wouldn’t be back till morning.
My father’s voice was still calm. «That changes things, doesn’t it?»
«It does,» another voice said.
«Do you really think so?»
This was Atticus’s usual question when he was going to win us at checkers. I couldn’t miss it. I ran as fast as I could to Atticus. Jem screamed and tried to catch me, but I was faster than he and Dill. I pushed my way through dark smelly bodies and ran into the circle of light.
I thought he would have a fine surprise, but I saw fear in his eyes, and it stayed there when Dill and Jem ran into the light.
There was a smell of whiskey and pigpen about, and I saw that I was among strangers. These men were not the people I saw last night.
Atticus got up from his chair, but he was moving slowly, like an old man. He put the newspaper down very carefully. His fingers were trembling a little.
«Go home, Jem,» he said. «Take Scout and Dill home.»
Jem didn’t move. Atticus repeated the words three times, but Jem shook his head.
«I’ll send him home,» a big man said, and grabbed Jem by the collar. He jerked Jem nearly off his feet.
«Don’t you touch him!» I kicked the man swiftly. I was surprised when he fell back in real pain. I wanted to kick his shin, but aimed too high.
«That’ll do, Scout.» Atticus put his hand on my shoulder. «Don’t kick folks,» he said.
«Nobody gonna do that to Jem,» I said.
In the middle of this strange crowd, Atticus tried to make Jem obey him. But Jem refused to go again and again. I felt that
Jem had his own reasons for doing as he did. I tried to find a familiar face in that crowd, and I saw one.
«Hey, Mr. Cunningham.»
The man did not hear me, it seemed.
«Hey, Mr. Cunningham. How’s your property situation?»
Mr. Walter Cunningham’s legal affairs were well known to me; Atticus had once explained them. The big man seemed uncomfortable; he cleared his throat and looked away. My friendly attempt had no success.
«Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some nuts one time, remember?»
The man said nothing again.
«I go to school with Walter,» I began again. «He’s your boy, ain’t he? Ain’t he, sir?»
Mr. Cunningham was moved to a faint nod. He did know me, after all.
«He’s in my grade,» I said, «and he does right well. He’s a good boy,» I added, «a real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?»
Atticus had said that polite people talked about things interesting to other people, not to themselves. Mr. Cunningham showed no interest in his son, so I turned to his legal affairs again. I tried to make him feel at home.
«This property situation of yours is bad,» I was informing him, when I saw that all the men were looking at me, some had their mouths half-open. Atticus was also looking at me, his mouth, even, was half-open, a manner he had once called bad. Our eyes met and he shut it.
«Well, Atticus, I was just sayin’ to Mr. Cunningham that his property situation is bad an’ all that, but you said not to worry, it takes a long time sometimes… that you all would work it out together…» I had a feeling that I had made an idiotic mistake. These legal affairs seemed all right enough for living room talk.
The men were silent and quite still. They were all looking at me, and I couldn’t stand it any longer.
«What’s the matter?» I asked.
Atticus said nothing. I looked around and at Mr. Cunningham. His face was without expression, but suddenly he took me by both shoulders.
«I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady,» he said.
Then he addressed the crowd. «Let’s clear out,» he called. «Let’s get going, boys.»
The men went back to their old cars and left.
I looked around. Atticus had gone to the jail and was standing with his face to the wall. I went to him and pulled his sleeve. «Can we go home now?» He nodded, took out his handkerchief, wiped his face, and blew his nose loudly.
A low voice came from the darkness above: «They gone?»
Atticus stepped back and looked up. «They’ve gone,» he said. «Get some sleep, Tom. They won’t bother you anymore.»
Another voice, from the direction of The Maycomb Tribune office, sounded in the night: «You’re damn right, they won’t. Had you covered all the time, Atticus.»
In the window above The Maycomb Tribune office, Mr. Underwood and a double-barreled shotgun were seen.
Atticus and Mr. Underwood talked a little, then Atticus returned to the jail, switched off the light above the door, and picked up his chair. Dill offered to carry it for him. He had not said a word the whole time.
Dill, with the chair, and I walked far behind Atticus and Jem. I thought that Atticus was angry with him for not going home, but I was wrong. As they passed under a streetlight, Atticus put out his hand and massaged Jem’s hair. It was his gesture of affection.