“Heck,” Atticus’s back was turned. “If this thing’s hushed up it’ll be a simple denial to Jem of the way I’ve tried to raise him. Sometimes I think I’m a total failure as a parent, but I’m all they’ve got. Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so I can look squarely back at him . . . if I connived at something like this, frankly I couldn’t meet his eye, and the day I can’t do that I’ll know I’ve lost him. I don’t want to lose him and Scout, because they’re all I’ve got.”
“Mr. Finch,” Mr. Tate was still planted to the floorboards. “Bob Ewell fell on his knife. I can prove it.”
Atticus wheeled around. His hands dug into his pockets. “Heck, can’t you even try to see it my way? You’ve got children of your own, but I’m older than you. When mine are grown I’ll be an old man if I’m still around, but right now I’m—if they don’t trust me they won’t trust anybody. Jem and Scout know what happened. If they hear of me saying downtown something different happened—Heck, I won’t have them any more. I can’t live one way in town and another way in my home.”
Mr. Tate rocked on his heels and said patiently, “He’d flung Jem down, he stumbled over a root under that tree and—look, I can show you.”
Mr. Tate reached in his side pocket and withdrew a long switchblade knife. As he did so, Dr. Reynolds came to the door. “The son—deceased’s under that tree, doctor, just inside the schoolyard. Got a flashlight? Better have this one.”
“I can ease around and turn my car lights on,” said Dr. Reynolds, but he took Mr. Tate’s flashlight. “Jem’s all right. He won’t wake up tonight, I hope, so don’t worry. That the knife that killed him, Heck?”
“No sir, still in him. Looked like a kitchen knife from the handle. Ken oughta be there with the hearse by now, doctor. ’night.”
Mr. Tate flicked open the knife. “It was like this,” he said. He held the knife and pretended to stumble; as he leaned forward his left arm went down in front of him. “See there? Stabbed himself through that soft stuff between his ribs. His whole weight drove it in.”
Mr. Tate closed the knife and jammed it back in his pocket. “Scout is eight years old,” he said. “She was too scared to know exactly what went on.”
“You’d be surprised,” Atticus said grimly.
“I’m not sayin’ she made it up, I’m sayin’ she was too scared to know exactly what happened. It was mighty dark out there, black as ink. ’d take somebody mighty used to the dark to make a competent witness . . .”
“I won’t have it,” Atticus said softly.
“God damn it, I’m not thinking of Jem!”
Mr. Tate’s boot hit the floorboards so hard the lights in Miss Maudie’s bedroom went on. Miss Stephanie Crawford’s lights went on. Atticus and Mr. Tate looked across the street, then at each other. They waited.
When Mr. Tate spoke again his voice was barely audible. “Mr. Finch, I hate to fight you when you’re like this. You’ve been under a strain tonight no man should ever have to go through. Why you ain’t in the bed from it I don’t know, but I do know that for once you haven’t been able to put two and two together, and we’ve got to settle this tonight because tomorrow’ll be too late. Bob Ewell’s got a kitchen knife in his craw.”
Mr. Tate added that Atticus wasn’t going to stand there and maintain that any boy Jem’s size with a busted arm had fight enough left in him to tackle and kill a grown man in the pitch dark.
“Heck,” said Atticus abruptly, “that was a switchblade you were waving. Where’d you get it?”
“Took it off a drunk man,” Mr. Tate answered coolly.
I was trying to remember. Mr. Ewell was on me . . . then he went down. . . . Jem must have gotten up. At least I thought . . .
“I said I took it off a drunk man downtown tonight. Ewell probably found that kitchen knife in the dump somewhere. Honed it down and bided his time . . . just bided his time.”
Atticus made his way to the swing and sat down. His hands dangled limply between his knees. He was looking at the floor. He had moved with the same slowness that night in front of the jail, when I thought it took him forever to fold his newspaper and toss it in his chair.
Mr. Tate clumped softly around the porch. “It ain’t your decision, Mr. Finch, it’s all mine. It’s my decision and my responsibility. For once, if you don’t see it my way, there’s not much you can do about it. If you wanta try, I’ll call you a liar to your face. Your boy never stabbed Bob Ewell,” he said slowly, “didn’t come near a mile of it and now you know it. All he wanted to do was get him and his sister safely home.”