Cease Fire

(Today on the blog I am tickled to feature one of my talented and hard-working students, Meghan Hayes. Her final class project will thrill fans of To Kill a Mockingbird–especially those who always wondered how Ol’ One-Shot got his name. Enjoy!)

I had always stuck out like a sore thumb and I knew it, but I had no idea how at odds I was with everyone around me. I had to stare down the barrel of my father’s rifle at a man to understand how different my society’s opinions were from mine. 

I had spent all of my seventeen years living at Finch’s Landing. It was an old estate overlooking sprawling cotton fields constantly filled with black workers. One of my ancestors had staked the claim and built the house before the Civil War so it was close to the river to allow the slaves to load the cotton onto boats. The house was built for many more people than the four of us who lived there now. My mother had passed five years ago leaving me, my father, my younger sister Alexandra, and my younger brother Jack. I wasn’t grieving anymore but I still missed her sometimes, like when I smelled the cookies she used to make, or when Alexandra was throwing some fit about a dress or a girly thing like that.

For the most part, life at the Landing was idyllic. The cotton was my family’s source of income and my father, a soft-spoken man, had run the farm since he was eighteen. My father had been taught at home by his father because he believed there was no reason in having his son be educated at the school in Maycomb in subjects that had no place in a farmer’s brain. So the tradition of learning at home continued for my generation of Finches. Of course, this caused me to not know many people my own age because when you work and go to school at home, what reason is there to leave?

I had learned most of what my father had to teach me about farming and hunting when I was eleven and decided I didn’t want to count bales of white fluff and wake up at four in the morning. I turned to the extensive Finch library that had accumulated over the decades we had been prosperous. I soon realized that words were calling me. I read each and every book I could get my hands on, anything from an almanac to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

My father knew I didn’t plan on staying on the Landing and I think he was actually hoping I would go because he never had the chance to leave himself. I wanted to go to a real school and master words or maybe become a professional marksman because I was a pretty fair shot.

Before I could do any of that, I had to mature. Thus, it was the summer of 1899. I had spent most of the year writing papers, counting cotton, and hunting with my father and his 357 mag. 24” Winchester Model 1892 rifle. That rifle hung from my shoulder as I walked with my siblings away from Finch’s Landing. 

It was the Fourth of July, the one day we spent in Maycomb. Normally any trips into town for groceries or supplies were made by one of our servants, but once a year, everyone within a twenty-mile radius flocked like migrating birds to Maycomb for the Fourth of July celebration. There were always competitions, horse races, and a few stirring speeches about our astounding country and our freedom. This was usually sweltering and somewhat enjoyable.

Our father had come with us every other year but today over buttered biscuits and sausage, he offhandedly said, “Atticus, don’t forget my rifle when you go today.”

“You’re not going?” Alexandra was so surprised that she let her mouth hang open in a very unladylike fashion. She was always reminding everyone else of their manners, but now it seemed the snob of the house needing some reminding herself.

“Atticus is old enough to look after you both and I’ve got a big shipment to sort.” My father used his tan linen napkin to dab the butter from the corners of his mouth then crumpled it and stood.

There was no more to say, so there I was, walking with my prissy fourteen-year-old sister on my right and my brother trailing behind, fiddling with a flower. 

“Jack, please try to keep up. We shall be late.” Alexandra stared back down the dirt path at where little Jack knelt next to a trampled dandelion.

I sometimes could not stand the highbrow attitude she took. “Late to listen to Mr. Pritchard drone on about his war-hero great-great-great-great uncle?” I referenced a drab story that one town elder told every year before any of the entertaining things started.

“Late nevertheless.” If her nose had gotten any higher in the air, we might have had to call a doctor to fix her neck. Still, her rebuke pulled Jack away from his flower and he tripped after us as we came into view of Maycomb. 

Maycomb could have been shown as the definition of a one-horse town. Really it was a square of government buildings and shops surrounded by a few old houses that seemed to be on their last leg. The town’s courthouse stood closest to us with a large crowd assembled in front of it. The slightly moth-eaten red, white, and blue bunting that announced the holiday hung from the podium outside the courthouse.

“See, we haven’t missed any indoctrination.” I gestured to the empty podium to calm Alexandra’s ruffled feathers.

 Alexandra now held onto Jack’s seven-year-old hand. Narrowing her green cat eyes and scrunching her pointed nose rather unappealingly, she said. “Atticus, you are a cynic.”

“I prefer realist.” We finally got close enough to the throng to hear them chatting about the speaker who was about to step up.

As if the words had conjured him, Mr. Claudius Raymond, the one surviving man in town who had served in the military, got up behind the podium and made a calming motion with his arms to quiet the audience. “Ehhrm… Good morning, fellow residents of our wonderful community of Maycomb. Let me just begin by commending you all for all the admirable neighborly behavior all of you have displayed. You all have acted exactly as the citizens of this great nation should. This attitude has helped us all on the road to the American Dream. The dream of working for your prosperity in a safe living space in which your family can grow…”

That’s where I couldn’t stand it anymore and started the way more intriguing activity of looking around at the people surrounding my siblings and me. We were surrounded by tired, sweating, gussied-up townsfolk who all looked as bored as I felt. Here we stood, at the most exciting event Maycomb had to offer, under the blistering sun, pretending to pay attention to Claudius Raymond’s rendition of the Declaration of Independence. I may have dozed off on my feet.

We endured some more of the speech silently for about three or four minutes. I was considering walking home for some lemonade when, in my peripheral vision, I caught some quick motion near the courthouse. Someone had just ducked out of sight.

I moved to my left so I could see better. There were a few bodies crouched out of the view of most of the crowd. They were some blacks that seemed to be about my age, two boys and a girl. They must have been there to listen to Raymond’s droning, why they would intentionally do that, I will never understand. 

Seeing them made me think, our great nation had almost ripped itself in half forty years ago over owning human beings, and that war was ended by the side of freedom. I looked at my circumstance and wasn’t able to tell who won.

Then I could tell Raymond was wrapping it up. “Let us never forget the righteous values of our country. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness. Continue to live and be free to pursue your happiness in our amazing nation.”

The mandatory applause followed politely as the man we actually wanted to speak reached the podium. Mr. Polk, our current mayor, gripped the wooden structure and announced loudly. “Welcome to Maycomb’s thirty-sixth annual Independence Day celebration. The horse race will be held on Fourth Street. The runnin’ race will be going around the square. The shootin’ contest will be west of the courthouse. The eatin’ contests will be at the school and the bettin’s wherever you go. Fireworks’ll start at three back here in the square.” With that, he was done and everyone was free to get to what they wanted to do: compete for money.

I walked back and found Alexandra and Jack. “Come on. I’ve got to get to the shooting contest.”

“Can I watch the horses?” Jack looked up at Atticus with the begging face he made when he wanted something.

I sighed. “Is that what you want to do too, Sister?”

“Well, yes. Most of these events are superior to your shooting.” She snagged a hold of Jack’s hand again and flounced away. 

I shrugged. Alexandra could handle watching Jack for ten minutes. I started toward the group forming west of the courthouse. 

There were probably about ten full-grown men already leaning against the wall of the courthouse, chewing and spitting while letting their guns rest against the courthouse as well. I took a deep breath and approached them. They must have all been at least in their thirties and their firearms ranged from shotguns to a shiny, new Colt model 1898.

I wondered who would be officiating this year. The last few competitions had been run by Mr. Phineas Column, whose hearing had completely gone a decade ago and his eyes were a step behind them. But he was nowhere to be seen. 

That was when Heck Tate sauntered up. He was about my age but much scrawnier than me with dusty blond hair that fell almost over his eyes. I had met him a few years back. He had been a pretty excitable kid that liked to be in charge. It didn’t seem like he had changed much as he clapped his hands for our attention. “Hello, gentlemen. Let’s get started with the shooting competition. In the first round, you’ll all try to shoot three cans off the fence from seventy-five yards in two minutes. The first four who can knock their three off will move on to the hundred-yard mark and go again. Then the fastest three of those will shoot the live targets, then you will take turns shooting at the live targets, first to kill one wins. The winner gets a twenty-dollar prize. Alright men, step up to the seventy-five line.”

We followed Heck’s instructions and stood behind the line scratched into the dirt. Fifty yards away stood an old, rotting fence that had a lot of rusted soup cans standing on it in a row like soldiers awaiting roll call. There were three for each shooter.

The shooters took their positions and started loading their arms. I slung the rifle off of my shoulders and followed suit.

Everyone was supposed to bring their own ammunition but the shopkeeper was willing to give a discounted price for anyone who was dry. I had plenty already in my magazine and a package in my pocket with more cartridges just in case. I slid an extra cartridge into the chamber to ensure I had enough to shoot them all with one go. 

Heck Tate stood a fair distance away covering his ears in preparation. “Alright. Fire away.”

None of the competitors were dumb enough to shoot immediately. The silence was suffocating as the men around me aimed carefully. I had a different strategy. I always stared at my target for a good long while before even lifting the gun. By now, most of the men had discharged their weapons. A few cans had fallen but that was none of my concern. I had to focus.

I stared at those soup cans and figured the difference between my eye line and where the barrel would be. I closed my eyes and started my usual process of shooting. I visualized shooting at them. I would fire three times, moving rapidly two inches to the right. The cans would stand for a moment but then each would tip and fall.

I opened my eyes. Only focusing on my cans, I brought the rifle up to my cheek. I rested the butt of the rifle against my shoulder and blew out the breath I had been holding. My finger twitched against the trigger and the recoil followed almost directly afterward. I turned while pumping the lever to allow the next cartridge into the chamber. I fired again and readjusted for the final can. The lever moved out and back swiftly and once more, my finger depressed the trigger.

Three shots rang in the bystanders’ ears, soon replaced with the clanking of three aluminum cans hitting the ground. I started backing up to the hundred yard mark. Most of the bystanders’ heads swiveled to gawk at the seventeen-year-old who had just moved to the second round. I heard the muted tones say, “He gottem all with one shot.” “He’s One Shot Finch.” “Ol’ One Shot.”

I felt a grin starting to come over my face but quickly wiped it off. I couldn’t be excited yet. I had to keep my rhythm up if I wanted to get to the live targets. I inhaled and exhaled deeply. About four of the other contestants had knocked down two of their target cans. It was a minute before the three fastest of them joined me at the line. The first was a burly man with a rifle much like mine, the second was a younger man who was toting the little Colt, and the last was a man with curly red hair with a rifle.

We waited as they set up twelve cans back on the fence. Then they cleared out and Heck called out. “Fire away.”

I closed my eyes. All I had to do was tilt the gun a few inches higher and repeat what I had just done. No problem. I saw again and fired just like I had a few minutes ago. Clank! Clank! Clank!

A hundred yards proved to indeed be no problem. I had found my groove. I set the gun on the ground, waiting. I reloaded three cartridges. The burly man was done soon, followed by the curly red-haired man. The man with the Colt walked off in shame.

Heck had men bringing cages of squirrels and chickens. “We’re going to release one of these and we’ll let the slowest shooter try first, then the second, and then Atticus.”

True to his word, Heck let a squirrel out into the swath of land cleared for this contest. The squirrel darted back and forth like it knew it was being targeted. The redhead shot and missed by about a yard. The burly man fired away and must have grazed the varmint’s tail because it continued to dash back and forth. I closed my eyes. I knew that squirrel would be running everywhere and all I had to do was aim a few feet in front of him. I brought the gun up and exhaled. Then I stared down that squirrel and pulled the trigger. The crazed squirrel’s movements stilled. I had blown its head clean off.

The surprise of the spectators was clear. I wasn’t surprised, just in my rhythm. “The winner is Atticus Finch.” Heck yelled even though I was pretty sure everyone was aware of that.

The burly man was obviously upset. His raspy voice rang out. “No way this twig won. Must be a fluke!”

“Well, Mr. Walters, I think we can settle that. Atticus, would you do it again for us?” Heck Tate questioned.

I checked my ammunition. I had plenty. “Sure, Heck.”

Five bullets, three decapitated squirrels, and two headless chickens later, I was fairly certain that I had removed any belief that I was a fluke. Mr. Walters’s anger was demonstrated in his clenching fists and almost cherry red face. I had beaten him and made him look like a fool. I was ready to claim those twenty dollars and get home.

“Atticus! Atticus!” Alexandra was running toward me Alexandra’s higher than usual pitch stopped me from getting frustrated at her. 

“What is it, Sister?” I held her shoulders because she was about to fall over from her little jog. 

“Jack’s missing. I was watching the race and I thought he was too, but I turned to find that he was gone!” Her heavily clothed frame shook. 

I kept her standing. I always thought something like this would happen. Jack had  a habit of getting distracted by something and then following that thing with an almost unbreakable focus. I felt a little panic rising in my stomach, but then I returned to my shooting pattern of breathing. Jack was a little kid, he couldn’t have gotten too far away. Finding him could be tricky so I decided to call in reinforcements.

I announced loudly. “We’ve lost our brother, Jack, if you all could help us find him, we’d be much obliged!” 

The shooters and crowd said they would, of course. Alexandra had already formed a search party with all the other attendees of the Fourth of July celebration.  So we all fanned out from the courthouse, calling his name, and looked high and low. Jack wasn’t anywhere to be seen. It had been five minutes since Alexandra had run to me and I felt the panic rising again. What if we didn’t find him? What if I lost my little brother for good?

I was on the west side of the courthouse where the shooting contest was when I had a thought. Being the nature-loving child that he was, Jack had probably wandered into the woods that stood across the clearing.

I made my way into the trees, saying his name. “Jack? Jack?”

The forest wasn’t dense so I made my way through easily, checking behind every tree. I nearly lost my balance over a root and as I was catching myself, I heard a distant voice. “Hey! Hey! Mista Finch!”

I maneuvered my way to the call. I knew it wasn’t Jack’s voice, but one of the searchers’. What if they had found his body? What if I never held his little hand again? What would I tell my father?

I broke through the underbrush into a small clearing. I saw them immediately. It was one of the black boys who had been listening to the speech standing next to a small form. I sprinted to the small one and wrapped my arms around my little brother. As much as I would deny it, I had been truly scared for him. “Jack, I don’t blame you for getting away from Alexandra, but next time please tell her where you’re going.”

“Yes, Atticus.” His shy little tone assented.

I made eye contact with Jack’s finder. “Thank you so much, Mr….”

He smiled, showing impressively straight teeth. “It was no big thing, Mista Finch. Name’s Jerry Thomas. This lil’ guy was just explorin’ the woods, lookin’ for butterflies or somethin’.”

I let Jack go and he immediately went over and held Jerry’s hand. I was so grateful to this man who had no real reason to help me. He was an admirable person and in no way did he deserve to work hard for a white man for nothing his entire life. He didn’t deserve to and for a moment, everything was fine.

Then a burly figure crashed into the clearing. It was Mr. Walters. He saw Jerry holding onto Jack and I swear I could see something in him snap. He had already lost to a callow boy and that little smart-aleck had embarrassed him again. I was sure he had been drinking. All these things became hay sitting on the back of a camel awaiting that last straw. The straw of what he thought was a black man kidnapping a child. 

Mr. Walters nearly flew to where we were. He shoved me to the ground and wrenched Jack away from Jerry. He began beating Jerry savagely with his fists, shouting. “Thought ya could get away, did ya? Ya good-for-nothing-” Then followed a string of profanities a mile long.

I got to my feet and pulled Jack out of their way. Soon we were twenty yards away, watching a sore loser take an insignificant loss out devastatingly on an innocent man. Mr. Walters’s back was toward us as he continued to beat him. I pleaded. “Stop, Mr. Walters, stop. Sir, Jerry was only helping. Sir, stop!” I may as well have been shouting at a stone. 

Blood was now flowing from Jerry’s nose in frightening amounts. Jerry had his hands up and was trying hard to block the blows. But Mr. Walters was like a runaway train-he wasn’t going to stop unless someone did something. 

I still was carrying my rifle with two cartridges loaded. I raised it to my shoulder. “Stop, Mr. Walters!” I fired away from them, into the trees. A warning shot.

Still Mr. Walters pummeled Jerry. He yelled without turning. “You won’t do it, boy. I know you can’t.”

Things were getting worse. Jerry was curled up on the ground to protect himself as much as he could. Mr. Walters grabbed his torn collar and forced Jerry to stand. He slammed Jerry’s body against a large oak tree. That kind face was bruised and spotted with red. The same red that ran through the veins of every human being. Mr. Walters was careening down the rails. I had to pull the brakes. Pull the trigger.

I closed my eyes. I breathed evenly. Mr. Walters’ broad back was to me and he was constantly shifting his weight to put as much power in his hits as possible. If I could just graze his shoulder, he would know I meant business. Just a nick off the shoulder. I opened my eyes and exhaled. They were still in the same position. I pumped the lever. I pulled the hammer back, and the click could have been an explosion in my ears. 

I stared down the barrel at Mr. Walters and truly saw what it was that separated me from Mr. Walters and most of the people surrounding me: perspective. I knew people like Mr. Walters had to stop expressing their aggression on people like Jerry.  Then I pulled the trigger.

That twitch of my finger got me where I am today. Standing outside of a college in Montgomery. I am going to go into law and defend those like Jerry. Those who everyone accuses. I’m going to use my marksmanship to take down injustice instead of squirrels. I’m going to use my trigger finger to point out the guilty instead of fire at enraged men. 

I’m not going to shoot anymore. Yes I have a gift, but I have seen how that gift affects others. If I can just cut a scratch in the shoulder of a man from fifty yards when I aim to graze him, what happens when I am aiming for the kill?

Meghan Hayes is a sixteen-year-old writer who always has a song stuck in her head. She speaks fluent sarcasm and hopes to make a living storytelling someday.

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