We were nearly to the road when I felt Jem’s hand leave me, felt him jerk backwards to the ground. More scuffling, and there came a dull crunching sound and Jem screamed.
I ran in the direction of Jem’s scream and sank into a flabby male stomach. Its owner said, “Uff!” and tried to catch my arms, but they were tightly pinioned. His stomach was soft but his arms were like steel. He slowly squeezed the breath out of me. I could not move. Suddenly he was jerked backwards and flung on the ground, almost carrying me with him. I thought, Jem’s up.
One’s mind works very slowly at times. Stunned, I stood there dumbly. The scuffling noises were dying; someone wheezed and the night was still again.
Still but for a man breathing heavily, breathing heavily and staggering. I thought he went to the tree and leaned against it. He coughed violently, a sobbing, bone-shaking cough.
There was no answer but the man’s heavy breathing.
Jem didn’t answer.
The man began moving around, as if searching for something. I heard him groan and pull something heavy along the ground. It was slowly coming to me that there were now four people under the tree.
“Atticus . . . ?”
The man was walking heavily and unsteadily toward the road.
I went to where I thought he had been and felt frantically along the ground, reaching out with my toes. Presently I touched someone.
My toes touched trousers, a belt buckle, buttons, something I could not identify, a collar, and a face. A prickly stubble on the face told me it was not Jem’s. I smelled stale whiskey.
I made my way along in what I thought was the direction of the road. I was not sure, because I had been turned around so many times. But I found it and looked down to the street light. A man was passing under it. The man was walking with the staccato steps of someone carrying a load too heavy for him. He was going around the corner. He was carrying Jem. Jem’s arm was dangling crazily in front of him.
By the time I reached the corner the man was crossing our front yard. Light from our front door framed Atticus for an instant; he ran down the steps, and together, he and the man took Jem inside.
I was at the front door when they were going down the hall. Aunt Alexandra was running to meet me. “Call Dr. Reynolds!” Atticus’s voice came sharply from Jem’s room. “Where’s Scout?”
“Here she is,” Aunt Alexandra called, pulling me along with her to the telephone. She tugged at me anxiously. “I’m all right, Aunty,” I said, “you better call.”
She pulled the receiver from the hook and said, “Eula May, get Dr. Reynolds, quick!”
“Agnes, is your father home? Oh God, where is he? Please tell him to come over here as soon as he comes in. Please, it’s urgent!”
There was no need for Aunt Alexandra to identify herself; people in Maycomb knew each other’s voices.
Atticus came out of Jem’s room. The moment Aunt Alexandra broke the connection, Atticus took the receiver from her. He rattled the hook, then said, “Eula May, get me the sheriff, please.”
“Heck? Atticus Finch. Someone’s been after my children. Jem’s hurt. Between here and the schoolhouse. I can’t leave my boy. Run out there for me, please, and see if he’s still around. Doubt if you’ll find him now, but I’d like to see him if you do. Got to go now. Thanks, Heck.”
“Atticus, is Jem dead?”
“No, Scout. Look after her, sister,” he called, as he went down the hall.
Aunt Alexandra’s fingers trembled as she unwound the crushed fabric and wire from around me. “Are you all right, darling?” she asked over and over as she worked me free.
It was a relief to be out. My arms were beginning to tingle, and they were red with small hexagonal marks. I rubbed them, and they felt better.
“Aunty, is Jem dead?”
“No—no, darling, he’s unconscious. We won’t know how badly he’s hurt until Dr. Reynolds gets here. Jean Louise, what happened?”
“I don’t know.”
She left it at that. She brought me something to put on, and had I thought about it then, I would have never let her forget it: in her distraction, Aunty brought me my overalls. “Put these on, darling,” she said, handing me the garments she most despised.
She rushed back to Jem’s room, then came to me in the hall. She patted me vaguely, and went back to Jem’s room.
A car stopped in front of the house. I knew Dr. Reynold’s step almost as well as my father’s. He had brought Jem and me into the world, had led us through every childhood disease known to man including the time Jem fell out of the treehouse, and he had never lost our friendship. Dr. Reynolds said if we had been boil-prone things would have been different, but we doubted it.