I thought mad dogs foamed at the mouth, galloped, leaped and lunged at throats, and I thought they did it in August. Had Tim Johnson behaved thus, I would have been less frightened.
Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, the mockingbirds were silent, the carpenters at Miss Maudie’s house had vanished. I heard Mr Tate sniff, then blow his nose. I saw him shift his gun to the crook of his arm. I saw Miss Stephanie Crawford’s face framed in the glass window of her front door. Miss Maudie appeared and stood beside her. Atticus put his foot on the rung of a chair and rubbed 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 to the Radley house.
‘Look at him,’ whispered Jem. ‘Mr Heck said they walked in a straight line. He can’t even 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 Finch.’
Tim Johnson was advancing at a snail’s pace, but he was not playing or sniffing at foliage: he seemed dedicated to one course and motivated by an invisible force that was inching him towards us. We could see him shiver like a horse shedding flies; his jaw opened and shut; he was alist, but he was being pulled gradually towards 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 what remained of his poor mind made him pause and seem to consider which road he would take. He made a few hesitant steps and stopped in front of the Radley gate; then he tried to turn around, but was having difficulty.
Atticus said, ‘He’s within range, Heck. You better get him now before he goes down the side street – Lord knows who’s around the corner. Go inside, Cal.’
Calpurnia opened the screen door, latched it behind her, then unlatched it and held on to the hook. She tried to block Jem and me with her body, but we looked out from beneath 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 day for you – ’
‘For God’s sake, Mr Finch, look where he is! Miss and you’ll go straight into the Radley 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,’ he said.
In a fog, Jem and I watched our father take the gun and walk out into the middle of the street. He walked quickly, but I thought he moved like an underwater swimmer; time had slowed to a nauseating crawl.
When Atticus raised his glasses Calpurnia murmured, ‘Sweet Jesus help him,’ and put her hands to her cheeks.
Atticus pushed his glasses to his forehead; they slipped down, and he dropped them in the street. In the silence, I heard them crack. Atticus rubbed his eyes and chin; we saw him blink hard.
In front of the Radley gate, Tim Johnson had made up what was left of his mind. He had finally turned himself around, to pursue his original course up our street. He made two 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 in a 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 the dog, 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 his heel, and went to Mr Tate and stood looking down at Tim Johnson.
Doors opened one by one, and the neighbourhood slowly came alive. Miss Maudie walked down the steps with Miss Stephanie Crawford.
Jem was paralysed. I pinched him to get him moving, but when Atticus saw us coming he called. ‘Stay where you are.’
When Mr Tate and Atticus returned to the yard, Mr Tate was smiling. ‘I’ll have Zeebo collect him,’ he said. You haven’t forgot much, Mr Finch. They say it never leaves you.’
Atticus was silent.
‘Atticus?’ said Jem.
‘I saw that, One-Shot Finch!’
Atticus wheeled around and faced Miss Maudie. They looked at one another without saying 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 dangerous dead 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 sat waiting for Zeebo to arrive in the garbage truck.
Jem sat in numb confusion, and Miss Stephanie said, ‘Uh, uh, uh, who’da thought of a mad dog in February? Maybe he wadn’t mad, maybe he was just crazy. I’d hate to see Harry Johnson’s face when he gets in from the Mobile run and finds Atticus Finch’s shot his 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 still coming up the street, that they’d find out soon enough, they’d send his head to Montgomery.
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 part of him . . . an’ he did it so quick, like . . . I hafta aim for ten minutes ‘fore I can hit somethin’ . . .’
Miss Maudie grinned wickedly. ‘Well now, Miss Jean Louise,’ she said, ‘still think your father 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 was the deadliest 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 the Landing when he was coming up, if he shot fifteen times and hit fourteen doves he’d complain 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 his heart. Marksmanship’s a gift of God, a talent – oh, you have to practise to make it perfect, but shootin’s different from playing the piano or the like. I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized that God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things. I guess he decided he wouldn’t shoot till he had to, and he had to today.’