Jem hadn’t started like that in a long time. I wondered what he was thinking. He’d tell me when he wanted to, probably when we got home. I felt his fingers press the top of my costume, too hard, it seemed. I shook my head. “Jem, you don’t hafta—”
“Hush a minute, Scout,” he said, pinching me.
We walked along silently. “Minute’s up,” I said. “Whatcha thinkin’ about?” I turned to look at him, but his outline was barely visible.
“Thought I heard something,” he said. “Stop a minute.”
“Hear anything?” he asked.
We had not gone five paces before he made me stop again.
“Jem, are you tryin’ to scare me? You know I’m too old—”
“Be quiet,” he said, and I knew he was not joking.
The night was still. I could hear his breath coming easily beside me. Occasionally there was a sudden breeze that hit my bare legs, but it was all that remained of a promised windy night. This was the stillness before a thunderstorm. We listened.
“Heard an old dog just then,” I said.
“It’s not that,” Jem answered. “I hear it when we’re walkin’ along, but when we stop I don’t hear it.”
“You hear my costume rustlin’. Aw, it’s just Halloween got you. . . .”
I said it more to convince myself than Jem, for sure enough, as we began walking, I heard what he was talking about. It was not my costume.
“It’s just old Cecil,” said Jem presently. “He won’t get us again. Let’s don’t let him think we’re hurrying.”
We slowed to a crawl. I asked Jem how Cecil could follow us in this dark, looked to me like he’d bump into us from behind.
“I can see you, Scout,” Jem said.
“How? I can’t see you.”
“Your fat streaks are showin’. Mrs. Crewnshaw painted ’em with some of that shiny stuff so they’d show up under the footlights. I can see you pretty well, an’ I expect Cecil can see you well enough to keep his distance.”
I would show Cecil that we knew he was behind us and we were ready for him. “Cecil Jacobs is a big wet he-en!” I yelled suddenly, turning around.
We stopped. There was no acknowledgment save he-en bouncing off the distant schoolhouse wall.
“I’ll get him,” said Jem. “He-y!”
Hay-e-hay-e-hay-e, answered the schoolhouse wall.
It was unlike Cecil to hold out for so long; once he pulled a joke he’d repeat it time and again. We should have been leapt at already. Jem signaled for me to stop again.
He said softly, “Scout, can you take that thing off?”
“I think so, but I ain’t got anything on under it much.”
“I’ve got your dress here.”
“I can’t get it on in the dark.”
“Okay,” he said, “never mind.”
“Jem, are you afraid?”
“No. Think we’re almost to the tree now. Few yards from that, an’ we’ll be to the road. We can see the street light then.” Jem was talking in an unhurried, flat toneless voice. I wondered how long he would try to keep the Cecil myth going.
“You reckon we oughta sing, Jem?”
“No. Be real quiet again, Scout.”
We had not increased our pace. Jem knew as well as I that it was difficult to walk fast without stumping a toe, tripping on stones, and other inconveniences, and I was barefooted. Maybe it was the wind rustling the trees. But there wasn’t any wind and there weren’t any trees except the big oak.
Our company shuffled and dragged his feet, as if wearing heavy shoes. Whoever it was wore thick cotton pants; what I thought were trees rustling was the soft swish of cotton on cotton, wheek, wheek, with every step.
I felt the sand go cold under my feet and I knew we were near the big oak. Jem pressed my head. We stopped and listened.
Shuffle-foot had not stopped with us this time. His trousers swished softly and steadily. Then they stopped. He was running, running toward us with no child’s steps.
“Run, Scout! Run! Run!” Jem screamed.
I took one giant step and found myself reeling: my arms useless, in the dark, I could not keep my balance.
“Jem, Jem, help me, Jem!”
Something crushed the chicken wire around me. Metal ripped on metal and I fell to the ground and rolled as far as I could, floundering to escape my wire prison. From somewhere near by came scuffling, kicking sounds, sounds of shoes and flesh scraping dirt and roots. Someone rolled against me and I felt Jem. He was up like lightning and pulling me with him but, though my head and shoulders were free, I was so entangled we didn’t get very far.