THE 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, 'taint 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 moon-light, 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. [See next page.]
"Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer swears they will keep mum about This and They wish They may Drop down dead in Their Tracks if They ever Tell and Rot."
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." *
[* If Mr. Harbison owned a slave named Bull, Tom would have spoken of him as "Harbison's Bull," but a son or a dog of that name was "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. "Consound 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 tiptoeing 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.
"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.