Dark Encounter

FROM To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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.

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.

“Jem?”

There was no answer but the man’s heavy breathing.

“Jem?”

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.

“Jem?”

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. Reynolds’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.

He came in the door and said, “Good Lord.” He walked toward me, said, “You’re still standing,” and changed his course. He knew every room in the house. He also knew that if I was in bad shape, so was Jem.

After ten forevers Dr. Reynolds returned. “Is Jem dead?” I asked.

“Far from it,” he said, squatting down to me. “He’s got a bump on the head just like yours, and a broken arm. Scout, look that way—no, don’t turn your head, roll your eyes. Now look over yonder. He’s got a bad break, so far as I can tell now it’s in the elbow. Like somebody tried to wring his arm off… Now look at me.”

“Then he’s not dead?”

“No-o!” Dr. Reynolds got to his feet. “We can’t do much tonight,” he said, “except try to make him as comfortable as we can. We’ll have to X-ray his arm—looks like he’ll be wearing his arm ‘way out by his side for a while. Don’t worry, though, he’ll be as good as new. Boys his age bounce.”

While he was talking, Dr. Reynolds had been looking keenly at me, lightly fingering the bump that was coming on my forehead. “You don’t feel broke anywhere, do you?”

Dr. Reynolds’s small joke made me smile. “Then you don’t think he’s dead, then?”

He put on his hat. “Now I may be wrong, of course, but I think he’s very alive. Shows all the symptoms of it. Go have a look at him, and when I come back we’ll get together and decide.”

Dr. Reynolds’s step was young and brisk. Mr. Heck Tate’s was not. His heavy boots punished the porch and he opened the door awkwardly, but he said the same thing Dr. Reynolds said when he came in. “You all right, Scout?” he added.

“Yes sir, I’m goin‘ in to see Jem. Atticus’n’them’s in there.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Mr. Tate.

Aunt Alexandra had shaded Jem’s reading light with a towel, and his room was dim. Jem was lying on his back. There was an ugly mark along one side of his face. His left arm lay out from his body; his elbow was bent slightly, but in the wrong direction. Jem was frowning.

“Jem…?”

Atticus spoke. “He can’t hear you, Scout, he’s out like a light. He was coming around, but Dr. Reynolds put him out again.”

“Yes sir.” I retreated. Jem’s room was large and square. Aunt Alexandra was sitting in a rocking-chair by the fireplace. The man who brought Jem in was standing in a corner, leaning against the wall. He was some countryman I did not know. He had probably been at the pageant, and was in the vicinity when it happened. He must have heard our screams and come running.

Atticus was standing by Jem’s bed.

Mr. Heck Tate stood in the doorway. His hat was in his hand, and a flashlight bulged from his pants pocket. He was in his working clothes.

“Come in, Heck,” said Atticus. “Did you find anything? I can’t conceive of anyone low-down enough to do a thing like this, but I hope you found him.”

Mr. Tate sniffed. He glanced sharply at the man in the corner, nodded to him, then looked around the room—at Jem, at Aunt Alexandra, then at Atticus.

“Sit down, Mr. Finch,” he said pleasantly.

Atticus said, “Let’s all sit down. Have that chair, Heck. I’ll get another one from the livingroom.”

Mr. Tate sat in Jem’s desk chair. He waited until Atticus returned and settled himself. I wondered why Atticus had not brought a chair for the man in the corner, but Atticus knew the ways of country people far better than I. Some of his rural clients would park their long-eared steeds under the chinaberry trees in the back yard, and Atticus would often keep appointments on the back steps. This one was probably more comfortable where he was.

“Mr. Finch,” said Mr. Tate, “tell you what I found. I found a little girl’s dress—it’s out there in my car. That your dress, Scout?”

“Yes sir, if it’s a pink one with smockin‘,” I said. Mr. Tate was behaving as if he were on the witness stand. He liked to tell things his own way, untrammeled by state or defense, and sometimes it took him a while.

“I found some funny-looking pieces of muddy-colored cloth—”

“That’s m’costume, Mr. Tate.”

Mr. Tate ran his hands down his thighs. He rubbed his left arm and investigated Jem’s mantelpiece, then he seemed to be interested in the fireplace. His fingers sought his long nose.

“What is it, Heck?” said Atticus.

Mr. Tate found his neck and rubbed it. “Bob Ewell’s lyin‘ on the ground under that tree down yonder with a kitchen knife stuck up under his ribs. He’s dead, Mr. Finch.”

✥❆✥❆✥❆✥❆✥

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Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 2:54 PM  Leave a Comment  
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