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 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. [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, 'longside 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!"