CLOSE upon the hour of noon the whole
village was suddenly electrified with the
ghastly news. No need of the as yet un-dreamed-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.
All the town was drifting toward the graveyard.
Tom's heartbreak 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.
"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
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
"It was within three feet of Muff Potter when 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
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 schoolmates 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