Scout and Jem are disappointed that Atticus, at 50, is older than their classmates’ parents and doesn’t do anything, like farm or drive a dump truck. He also wears glasses and never hunts, drinks, or smokes. Despite how innocuous he seems, everyone talks about him defending Tom Robinson. People tease Scout after she commits herself to “a policy of cowardice.” He refuses to teach Scout and Jem to shoot their air rifles and tells them that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. This isn’t a normal thing for Atticus to say, so Scout asks Miss Maudie about it. She agrees with Atticus and says that mockingbirds just sing for people. Scout complains that Atticus is too old and can’t do anything. Miss Maudie points out that Atticus can write fantastic wills, play checkers, and play the mouth harp. Scout is even more embarrassed.
When Scout refers to her choice to follow Atticus’s request as a “policy of cowardice,” it shows that she still thinks courage and bravery have to do with the way a person fights physically or verbally for what they believe in. In other words, it hasn’t yet crossed her mind that it might be more courageous for her to walk away from others’ taunts. Atticus’s request that the children not kill innocent mockingbirds hearkens to his defense of Tom Robinson, who is being persecuted by the community. When Miss Maudie echoes what Atticus said, it helps the children see that within Atticus’s sense of morality is based on universal concepts of right and wrong that everyone can apply.
Miss Maudie sends Scout home, so the construction crew doesn’t crush her. Scout finds Jem’s attempts to shoot tin cans boring, so when Atticus gets home, he finds Scout pointing her rifle at Miss Maudie’s backside. He warns Miss Maudie, who good-naturedly insults Atticus, and tells Scout to not point her gun at people. Annoyed, Scout asks Calpurnia what Atticus can do. Calpurnia insists that Atticus can do lots of things but can’t list any. Later, Scout feels even worse when Atticus is the only father not playing in the inter-church football game.
Scout and Jem’s disappointment with the fact that Atticus apparently can’t do anything again suggests that both of them think of courage and personal worth as coming from an individual’s tangible capabilities. As a lawyer, there’s not much to directly see of Atticus’s work, which makes it harder for his children to understand that he performs important services for his community through his profession.
On Saturday, Scout and Jem take their air rifles out, but just past the Radley Place, Jem spots old Tim Johnson, a beloved local hound dog. He drags Scout home and asks Calpurnia to come look at Tim. Jem mimes how Tim is moving—like his right legs are shorter than his left, twitching and gulping—and Calpurnia comes outside to look. After a minute, she rushes Jem and Scout back inside, gets Eula May to warn everyone on the street that a mad dog is coming and ask Atticus to come home. She runs to the Radley Place to warn Nathan and Boo, but they don’t open their door.
Keep in mind that to Jem and Scout, Calpurnia’s willingness to run right up to the Radleys’ front door may look either wildly misguided or very courageous, since they’re still wary of Boo. Calpurnia’s actions also make the case that she feels as though she’s an essential part of Maycomb and, just like Scout’s other neighbors, can and should do everything in her power to protect others from the rabid dog.
Atticus and Mr. Heck Tate, the sheriff, arrive in the car. Calpurnia explains that Tim is just twitching, not running, so they decide to wait for him to get closer. Scout is terrified—she thought that mad dogs foamed at the mouth and lunged at people’s throats, and only do so in August. Tim’s behavior in February, combined with the deserted and silent street, is eerie. Tim comes into sight, looking dazed, and Mr. Tate breathes that Tim is definitely ill. At the bend in the road in front of the Radley Place, Tim hesitates. As Jem and Scout watch from behind Calpurnia, Mr. Tate shoves his rifle at Atticus to shoot Tim.
Scout’s aside that Tim’s behavior is scarier because it’s not what she expected from a rabid dog shows again that what Scout fears most of all is the unknown—even outright threats aren’t as frightening as something that’s entirely surprising. The fact that the street also looks eerie when it’s empty and closed-up nods to the idea that even in February, Scout expects her neighborhood to be open and welcoming—seeing that it has the potential to not be is very off-putting.
Atticus tries to refuse, but he takes the rifle and steps into the street. He pushes his glasses up, but they fall back—he drops them, and they crack. As Tim catches sight of Atticus and goes rigid, Atticus swiftly lifts the gun and shoots. Tim crumples. Mr. Tate’s inspection reveals that Atticus shot a bit too far to the right. Atticus isn’t surprised. He grinds his broken lens into powder as the neighborhood comes back to life. Jem tries to talk to Atticus, but he can’t formulate words. Atticus warns Jem and Scout to stay away from the body, and Miss Maudie calls Atticus “One-Shot Finch.”
Atticus is very clearly comfortable handling a rifle, thereby throwing a wrench into Scout and Jem’s belief that he can’t do anything. This begins to suggest that Atticus may have any number of skills, but that he doesn’t choose to use them unless it’s wholly necessary to do so in order to protect his family and his community.
Atticus and Mr. Tate head back to town. Miss Maudie silences Miss Stephanie and tells Jem that Atticus used to be the best shot in Maycomb County. He stopped shooting when he realized he had an unfair advantage over other living things. She tells Scout that people in their right minds don’t take pride in their talents as they watch Zeebo remove the dog’s body. Later, Jem tells Scout to not mention what happened—he believes if Atticus wanted them to know he was a good shot, he would’ve told them. Jubilantly, Jem shouts that Atticus is a gentleman.
It’s telling that Jem is so ecstatic to learn that Atticus is a good shot, as it falls into line with what Jem believes about courage and worth coming from easily demonstrable skills, like shooting. The idea that it’s a choice to use skills like this, however, suggests that there’s more to this than Jem realizes—such as the possibility that Atticus might feel as though showing off his shooting skills would be incompatible with his morally upright image.