“Oh, I didn’t know what I was a-doing. I wish I may die this minute if I did. It was all on account of the whiskey and the excitement, I reckon. I never used a weepon in my life before, Joe. I’ve fought, but never with weepons. They’ll all say that. Joe, don’t tell! Say you won’t tell, Joe – that’s a good feller. I always liked you, Joe, and stood up for you, too. Don’t you remember? You won’t tell, will you, Joe?” And the poor creature dropped on his knees before the stolid murderer, and clasped his appealing hands.
MUFF POTTER OUTWITTED.
“No, you’ve always been fair and square with me, Muff Potter, and I won’t go back on you. There, now, that’s as fair as a man can say.”
“Oh, Joe, you’re an angel. I’ll bless you for this the longest day I live.” And Potter began to cry.
“Come, now, that’s enough of that. This ain’t any time for blubbering. You be off yonder way and I’ll go this. Move, now, and don’t leave any tracks behind you.”
Potter started on a trot that quickly increased to a run. The half-breed stood looking after him. He muttered:
“If he’s as much stunned with the lick and fuddled with the rum as he had the look of being, he won’t think of the knife till he’s gone so far he’ll be afraid to come back after it to such a place by himself – chicken-heart!”
Two or three minutes later the murdered man, the blanketed corpse, the lidless coffin, and the open grave were under no inspection but the moon’s. The stillness was complete again, too.
two boys flew on and on, toward the village, speechless with horror. They glanced backward over their shoulders from time to time, apprehensively, as if they feared they might be followed. Every stump that started up in their path seemed a man and an enemy, and made them catch their breath; and as they sped by some outlying cottages that lay near the village, the barking of the aroused watch-dogs seemed to give wings to their feet.
“If we can only get to the old tannery before we break down!” whispered Tom, in short catches between breaths. “I can’t stand it much longer.”
Huckleberry’s hard pantings were his only reply, and the boys fixed their eyes on the goal of their hopes and bent to their work to win it. They gained steadily on it, and at last, breast to breast, they burst through the open door and fell grateful and exhausted in the sheltering shadows beyond. By and by their pulses slowed down, and Tom whispered:
“Huckleberry, what do you reckon’ll come of this?”
“If Doctor Robinson dies, I reckon hanging’ll come of it.”
“Do you though?”
“Why, I know it, Tom.”
Tom thought a while, then he said:
“Who’ll tell? We?”
“What are you talking about? S’pose something happened and Injun Joe didn’t hang? Why, he’d kill us some time or other, just as dead sure as we’re a-laying here.”
“That’s just what I was thinking to myself, Huck.”
“If anybody tells, let Muff Potter do it, if he’s fool enough. He’s generally drunk enough.”
Tom said nothing – went on thinking. Presently he whispered:
“Huck, Muff Potter don’t know it. How can he tell?”
“What’s the reason he don’t know it?”
“Because he’d just got that whack when Injun Joe done it. D’you reckon he could see anything? D’you reckon he knowed anything?”
“By hokey, that’s so, Tom!”
“And besides, look-a-here – maybe that whack done for him!”
“No, ’tain’t likely, Tom. He had liquor in him; I could see that; and besides, he always has. Well, when pap’s full, you might take and belt him over the head with a church and you couldn’t phase him. He says so, his own self. So it’s the same with Muff Potter, of course. But if a man was dead sober, I reckon maybe that whack might fetch him; I dono.”
After another reflective silence, Tom said:
“Hucky, you sure you can keep mum?”
“Tom, we got to keep mum. You know that. That Injun devil wouldn’t make any more of drownding us than a couple of cats, if we was to squeak ’bout this and they didn’t hang him. Now, look-a-here, Tom, less take and swear to one another – that’s what we got to do – swear to keep mum.”
“I’m agreed. It’s the best thing. Would you just hold hands and swear that we—”
“Oh no, that wouldn’t do for this. That’s good enough for little rubbishy common things – specially with gals, cuz they go back on you anyway, and blab if they get in a huff – but there orter be writing ’bout a big thing like this. And blood.”
Tom’s whole being applauded this idea. It was deep, and dark, and awful; the hour, the circumstances, the surroundings, were in keeping with it. He picked up a clean pine shingle that lay in the moonlight, took a little fragment of “red keel” out of his pocket, got the moon on his work, and painfully scrawled these lines, emphasizing each slow down-stroke by clamping his tongue between his teeth, and letting up the pressure on the up-strokes:
Huckleberry was filled with admiration of Tom’s facility in writing, and the sublimity of his language. He at once took a pin from his lapel and was going to prick his flesh, but Tom said:
“Hold on! Don’t do that. A pin’s brass. It might have verdigrease on it.”
“It’s p’ison. That’s what it is. You just swaller some of it once – you’ll see.”
So Tom unwound the thread from one of his needles, and each boy pricked the ball of his thumb and squeezed out a drop of blood. In time, after many squeezes, Tom managed to sign his initials, using the ball of his little finger for a pen. Then he showed Huckleberry how to make an H and an F, and the oath was complete. They buried the shingle close to the wall, with some dismal ceremonies and incantations, and the fetters that bound their tongues were considered to be locked and the key thrown away.
A figure crept stealthily through a break in the other end of the ruined building, now, but they did not notice it.
“Tom,” whispered Huckleberry, “does this keep us from ever telling – always?”
“Of course it does. It don’t make any difference what happens, we got to keep mum. We’d drop down dead – don’t you know that?”
“Yes, I reckon that’s so.”
They continued to whisper for some little time. Presently a dog set up a long, lugubrious howl just outside – within ten feet of them. The boys clasped each other suddenly, in an agony of fright.
“Which of us does he mean?” gasped Huckleberry.
“I dono – peep through the crack. Quick!”
“No, you, Tom!”
“I can’t – I can’t do it, Huck!”
“Please, Tom. There ’tis again!”
“Oh, lordy, I’m thankful!” whispered Tom. “I know his voice. It’s Bull Harbison.”
“Oh, that’s good – I tell you, Tom, I was most scared to death; I’d a bet anything it was a stray dog.”
The dog howled again. The boys’ hearts sank once more.
“Oh, my! that ain’t no Bull Harbison!” whispered Huckleberry. “Do, Tom!”
Tom, quaking with fear, yielded, and put his eye to the crack. His whisper was hardly audible when he said:
“Oh, Huck, IT’S A STRAY DOG!”
“Quick, Tom, quick! Who does he mean?”
“Huck, he must mean us both – we’re right together.”
“Oh, Tom, I reckon we’re goners. I reckon there ain’t no mistake ’bout where I’ll go to. I been so wicked.”
“Dad fetch it! This comes of playing hookey and doing everything a feller’s told not to do. I might a been good, like Sid, if I’d a tried – but no, I wouldn’t, of course. But if ever I get off this time, I lay I’ll just waller in Sunday-schools!” And Tom began to snuffle a little.
“You bad!” and Huckleberry began to snuffle too. “Confound it, Tom Sawyer, you’re just old pie, ’long-side o’ what I am. Oh, lordy, lordy, lordy, I wisht I only had half your chance.”
Tom choked off and whispered:
“Look, Hucky, look! He’s got his back to us!”
Hucky looked, with joy in his heart.
“Well, he has, by jingoes! Did he before?”
“Yes, he did. But I, like a fool, never thought. Oh, this is bully, you know. Now who can he mean?”
The howling stopped. Tom pricked up his ears.
“Sh! What’s that?” he whispered.
“Sounds like – like hogs grunting. No – it’s somebody snoring, Tom.”
“That is it! Where ’bouts is it, Huck?”
“I bleeve it’s down at ’tother end. Sounds so, anyway. Pap used to sleep there, sometimes, ’long with the hogs, but laws bless you, he just lifts things when he snores. Besides, I reckon he ain’t ever coming back to this town any more.”
The spirit of adventure rose in the boys’ souls once more.
“Hucky, do you das’t to go if I lead?”
“I don’t like to, much. Tom, s’pose it’s Injun Joe!”
Tom quailed. But presently the temptation rose up strong again and the boys agreed to try, with the understanding that they would take to their heels if the snoring stopped. So they went tip-toeing stealthily down, the one behind the other. When they had got to within five steps of the snorer, Tom stepped on a stick, and it broke with a sharp snap. The man moaned, writhed a little, and his face came into the moonlight. It was Muff Potter. The boys’ hearts had stood still, and their hopes too, when the man moved, but their fears passed away now. They tip-toed out, through the broken weather-boarding, and stopped at a little distance to exchange a parting word. That long, lugubrious howl rose on the night air again! They turned and saw the strange dog standing within a few feet of where Potter was lying, and facing Potter, with his nose pointing heavenward.
DISTURBING MUFF’S SLEEP.
“Oh, geeminy, it’s him!” exclaimed both boys, in a breath.
“Say, Tom – they say a stray dog come howling around Johnny Miller’s house, ’bout midnight, as much as two weeks ago; and a whippoorwill come in and lit on the banisters and sung, the very same evening; and there ain’t anybody dead there yet.”
“Well, I know that. And suppose there ain’t. Didn’t Gracie Miller fall in the kitchen fire and burn herself terrible the very next Saturday?”
“Yes, but she ain’t dead. And what’s more, she’s getting better, too.”
“All right, you wait and see. She’s a goner, just as dead sure as Muff Potter’s a goner. That’s what the niggers say, and they know all about these kind of things, Huck.”
Then they separated, cogitating. When Tom crept in at his bedroom window the night was almost spent. He undressed with excessive caution, and fell asleep congratulating himself that nobody knew of his escapade. He was not aware that the gently-snoring Sid was awake, and had been so for an hour.
When Tom awoke, Sid was dressed and gone. There was a late look in the light, a late sense in the atmosphere. He was startled. Why had he not been called – persecuted till he was up, as usual? The thought filled him with bodings. Within five minutes he was dressed and down-stairs, feeling sore and drowsy. The family were still at table, but they had finished breakfast. There was no voice of rebuke; but there were averted eyes; there was a silence and an air of solemnity that struck a chill to the culprit’s heart. He sat down and tried to seem gay, but it was up-hill work; it roused no smile, no response, and he lapsed into silence and let his heart sink down to the depths.
After breakfast his aunt took him aside, and Tom almost brightened in the hope that he was going to be flogged; but it was not so. His aunt wept over him and asked him how he could go and break her old heart so; and finally told him to go on, and ruin himself and bring her gray hairs with sorrow to the grave, for it was no use for her to try any more. This was worse than a thousand whippings, and Tom’s heart was sorer now than his body. He cried, he pleaded for forgiveness, promised to reform over and over again, and then received his dismissal, feeling that he had won but an imperfect forgiveness and established but a feeble confidence.
He left the presence too miserable to even feel revengeful toward Sid; and so the latter’s prompt retreat through the back gate was unnecessary. He moped to school gloomy and sad, and took his flogging, along with Joe Harper, for playing hookey the day before, with the air of one whose heart was busy with heavier woes and wholly dead to trifles. Then he betook himself to his seat, rested his elbows on his desk and his jaws in his hands, and stared at the wall with the stony stare of suffering that has reached the limit and can no further go. His elbow was pressing against some hard substance. After a long time he slowly and sadly changed his position, and took up this object with a sigh. It was in a paper. He unrolled it. A long, lingering, colossal sigh followed, and his heart broke. It was his brass andiron-knob!
This final feather broke the camel’s back.
upon the hour of noon the whole village was suddenly electrified with the ghastly news. No need of the as yet undreamed-of telegraph; the tale flew from man to man, from group to group, from house to house, with little less than telegraphic speed. Of course the schoolmaster gave holiday for that afternoon; the town would have thought strangely of him if he had not.
A gory knife had been found close to the murdered man, and it had been recognized by somebody as belonging to Muff Potter – so the story ran. And it was said that a belated citizen had come upon Potter washing himself in the “branch” about one or two o’clock in the morning, and that Potter had at once sneaked off – suspicious circumstances, especially the washing which was not a habit with Potter. It was also said that the town had been ransacked for this “murderer” (the public are not slow in the matter of sifting evidence and arriving at a verdict), but that he could not be found. Horsemen had departed down all the roads in every direction, and the Sheriff “was confident” that he would be captured before night.
A SUSPICIOUS INCIDENT.
All the town was drifting toward the graveyard. Tom’s heart-break vanished and he joined the procession, not because he would not a thousand times rather go anywhere else, but because an awful, unaccountable fascination drew him on. Arrived at the dreadful place, he wormed his small body through the crowd and saw the dismal spectacle. It seemed to him an age since he was there before. Somebody pinched his arm. He turned, and his eyes met Huckleberry’s. Then both looked elsewhere at once, and wondered if anybody had noticed anything in their mutual glance. But everybody was talking, and intent upon the grisly spectacle before them.
“Poor fellow!” “Poor young fellow!” “This ought to be a lesson to grave robbers!” “Muff Potter’ll hang for this if they catch him!” This was the drift of remark; and the minister said, “It was a judgment; His hand is here.”
Now Tom shivered from head to heel; for his eye fell upon the stolid face of Injun Joe. At this moment the crowd began to sway and struggle, and voices shouted, “It’s him! it’s him! he’s coming himself!”
“Who? Who?” from twenty voices.
“Hallo, he’s stopped! – Look out, he’s turning! Don’t let him get away!”
People in the branches of the trees over Tom’s head said he wasn’t trying to get away – he only looked doubtful and perplexed.
“Infernal impudence!” said a bystander; “wanted to come and take a quiet look at his work, I reckon – didn’t expect any company.”
The crowd fell apart, now, and the Sheriff came through, ostentatiously leading Potter by the arm. The poor fellow’s face was haggard, and his eyes showed the fear that was upon him. When he stood before the murdered man, he shook as with a palsy, and he put his face in his hands and burst into tears.
INJUN JOE’S TWO VICTIMS.
“I didn’t do it, friends,” he sobbed; “’pon my word and honor I never done it.”
“Who’s accused you?” shouted a voice.
This shot seemed to carry home. Potter lifted his face and looked around him with a pathetic hopelessness in his eyes. He saw Injun Joe, and exclaimed:
“Oh, Injun Joe, you promised me you’d never—”
“Is that your knife?” and it was thrust before him by the Sheriff.
Potter would have fallen if they had not caught him and eased him to the ground. Then he said:
“Something told me ’t if I didn’t come back and get—” He shuddered; then waved his nerveless hand with a vanquished gesture and said, “Tell ’em, Joe, tell ’em – it ain’t any use any more.”
Then Huckleberry and Tom stood dumb and staring, and heard the stony-hearted liar reel off his serene statement, they expecting every moment that the clear sky would deliver God’s lightnings upon his head, and wondering to see how long the stroke was delayed. And when he had finished and still stood alive and whole, their wavering impulse to break their oath and save the poor betrayed prisoner’s life faded and vanished away, for plainly this miscreant had sold himself to Satan and it would be fatal to meddle with the property of such a power as that.
“Why didn’t you leave? What did you want to come here for?” somebody said.
“I couldn’t help it – I couldn’t help it,” Potter moaned. “I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t seem to come anywhere but here.” And he fell to sobbing again.
Injun Joe repeated his statement, just as calmly, a few minutes afterward on the inquest, under oath; and the boys, seeing that the lightnings were still withheld, were confirmed in their belief that Joe had sold himself to the devil. He was now become, to them, the most balefully interesting object they had ever looked upon, and they could not take their fascinated eyes from his face.
They inwardly resolved to watch him nights, when opportunity should offer, in the hope of getting a glimpse of his dread master.
Injun Joe helped to raise the body of the murdered man and put it in a wagon for removal; and it was whispered through the shuddering crowd that the wound bled a little! The boys thought that this happy circumstance would turn suspicion in the right direction; but they were disappointed, for more than one villager remarked:
“It was within three feet of Muff Potter when it done it.”
Tom’s fearful secret and gnawing conscience disturbed his sleep for as much as a week after this; and at breakfast one morning Sid said:
“Tom, you pitch around and talk in your sleep so much that you keep me awake half the time.”
Tom blanched and dropped his eyes.
“It’s a bad sign,” said Aunt Polly, gravely. “What you got on your mind, Tom?”
“Nothing. Nothing ’t I know of.” But the boy’s hand shook so that he spilled his coffee.
“And you do talk such stuff,” Sid said. “Last night you said, ‘It’s blood, it’s blood, that’s what it is!’ You said that over and over. And you said, ‘Don’t torment me so – I’ll tell!’ Tell what? What is it you’ll tell?”
Everything was swimming before Tom. There is no telling what might have happened, now, but luckily the concern passed out of Aunt Polly’s face and she came to Tom’s relief without knowing it. She said:
“Sho! It’s that dreadful murder. I dream about it most every night myself. Sometimes I dream it’s me that done it.”
Mary said she had been affected much the same way. Sid seemed satisfied. Tom got out of the presence as quick as he plausibly could, and after that he complained of toothache for a week, and tied up his jaws every night. He never knew that Sid lay nightly watching, and frequently slipped the bandage free and then leaned on his elbow listening a good while at a time, and afterward slipped the bandage back to its place again. Tom’s distress of mind wore off gradually and the toothache grew irksome and was discarded. If Sid really managed to make anything out of Tom’s disjointed mutterings, he kept it to himself.
It seemed to Tom that his school-mates never would get done holding inquests on dead cats, and thus keeping his trouble present to his mind. Sid noticed that Tom never was coroner at one of these inquiries, though it had been his habit to take the lead in all new enterprises; he noticed, too, that Tom never acted as a witness – and that was strange; and Sid did not overlook the fact that Tom even showed a marked aversion to these inquests, and always avoided them when he could. Sid marvelled, but said nothing. However, even inquests went out of vogue at last, and ceased to torture Tom’s conscience.
Every day or two, during this time of sorrow, Tom watched his opportunity and went to the little grated jail-window and smuggled such small comforts through to the “murderer” as he could get hold of. The jail was a trifling little brick den that stood in a marsh at the edge of the village, and no guards were afforded for it; indeed, it was seldom occupied. These offerings greatly helped to ease Tom’s conscience.
The villagers had a strong desire to tar-and-feather Injun Joe and ride him on a rail, for body-snatching, but so formidable was his character that nobody could be found who was willing to take the lead in the matter, so it was dropped. He had been careful to begin both of his inquest-statements with the fight, without confessing the grave-robbery that preceded it; therefore it was deemed wisest not to try the case in the courts at present.