Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn had found a box of gold in a robber’s cave. After Judge Thatcher had taken the money and invested it for the boys, each had the huge allowance of a dollar a day. The Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson, had taken Huck home with them to try to reform him. At first, Huck could not stand living in a tidy house where smoking and swearing were forbidden. Worse, he had to go to school and learn how to read. He did, however, manage to drag himself to school almost every day, except for the times when he sneaked off for a smoke in the woods or to go fishing on the Mississippi River.
Life was beginning to become bearable to him when one day he noticed a boot print in the snow. Examining it closely, he realized that it belonged to his worthless father, whom he had not seen for more than a year. Knowing that his father would be looking for him when he learned about the money, Huck rushed to Judge Thatcher and persuaded him to take the fortune for himself. The judge was puzzled, but he signed some papers, and Huck was satisfied that he no longer had any money for his father to take from him.
Huck’s father showed up one night in Huck’s room at Widow Douglas’ home. Complaining that he had been cheated out of his money, the old drunkard later took Huck away with him to a cabin in the Illinois woods, where he kept the boy a prisoner, beating him periodically and half starving him. Huck was allowed to smoke and swear, however, and before long he began to wonder why he had ever liked living with the widow. His life with his father would have been pleasant if it had not been for the beatings. One day, he sneaked away, leaving a bloody trail from a pig he had killed in the woods. Huck wanted everyone to believe he was dead. He climbed into a canoe and went to Jackson’s Island to hide until all the excitement had blown over.
After three days of freedom, Huck wandered to another part of the island, and there he discovered Jim, Miss Watson’s black slave, who told Huck that he had run off because he had overheard Miss Watson planning to sell him down south for eight hundred dollars. Huck swore he would not report Jim. The two stayed on the island many days, Jim giving Huck an education in primitive superstition. One night, Huck paddled back to the mainland. Disguised as a girl, he called on a home near the shore. There he learned that his father had disappeared shortly after the people of the town concluded that Huck had been murdered. Since Jim had disappeared just after Huck’s apparent death, there was now a three-hundred-dollar reward posted for Jim’s capture, for most people believed that he had killed Huck.
Knowing that Jackson’s Island would soon be searched, Huck hurried back to Jim, and the two headed down the Mississippi on a raft. They planned to sell the raft at Cairo, Illinois, and then go on a steamboat up the Ohio River into free territory. Jim told Huck that he would work hard in the North and then buy his wife and children from their masters in the South. Helping a runaway slave bothered Huck’s conscience, but he reasoned that it would bother him more if he betrayed a good friend. One night, as they were drifting down the river on their raft, a large steamboat loomed before them, and Huck and Jim, knowing that the raft would be smashed under the hull of the ship, jumped into the water. Huck swam safely to shore, but Jim disappeared.
Huck found a home with a friendly family named Grangerford, who were feuding with the nearby Shepherdson family. The Grangerfords treated Huck kindly and left him mostly to himself, even giving him a young slave to wait on him. One day, the slave asked him to come to the woods to see some snakes. Following the boy, Huck came across Jim, who had been hiding in the woods waiting for an opportunity to send for Huck. Jim had repaired the broken raft. That night, one of the Grangerford daughters eloped with a young Shepherdson, and the feud broke out once more. Huck and Jim ran away after the shooting and set off down the river.
Shortly afterward, Jim and Huck met two men who pretended they were European royalty and made all sorts of nonsensical demands on Huck and Jim. Huck was not taken in, but he reasoned that it would do no harm to humor the two men to prevent quarreling. The Duke and the King were clever schemers. In one of the small river towns, they staged a fake show, which lasted long enough to net them a few hundred dollars. Then they ran off before the angered townspeople could catch them.
From a talkative young man, the King learned about the death of Peter Wilks, who had left considerable property and some cash to his three daughters. Wilks’s two brothers, whom no one in the town had ever seen, were living in England. The King and the Duke went to the three nieces, Mary Jane, Susan, and Joanna, and presented themselves as the two English uncles. They took all of the inheritance and then put up the property for auction and sold the slaves. This high-handed deed caused great grief to the girls, and Huck could not bear to see them so unhappy. He decided to expose the two frauds, but he wanted to ensure Jim’s safety first. Jim had been hiding in the woods waiting for his companions to return to him. Employing an ingenious series of lies, subterfuges, and maneuverings, Huck exposed the Duke and King. Huck fled back to Jim, and the two escaped on their raft. Just as Jim and Huck thought they were on their way and well rid of their former companions, the Duke and King came rowing down the river toward them.
The whole party set out again, with the Duke and the King planning to continue their schemes to hoodwink people in the towns along the river. In one town, the King turned Jim in for a reward, and he was sold. Huck had quite a tussle with his conscience. He knew that he ought to help return a slave to the rightful owner, yet on the other hand he thought of all the fine times he and Jim had had together and how loyal a friend Jim had been. Finally, Huck decided that he would help Jim to escape.
Learning that Silas Phelps was holding Jim, he headed for the Phelps farm. Mrs. Phelps ran up and hugged him, mistaking him for the nephew whom she had been expecting to come for a visit. Huck wondered how he could keep Mrs. Phelps from learning that he was not her nephew. Then to his relief, he learned they had mistaken him for Tom Sawyer. Huck rather liked being Tom for a while, and he was able to tell the Phelps all about Tom’s Aunt Polly and Sid and Mary, Tom’s brother and sister. Huck was feeling proud of himself for keeping up the deception. Tom Sawyer, when he arrived, told his aunt that he was his own brother, Sid.
At the first opportunity, Huck told Tom about Jim’s capture. To Huck’s surprise, Tom offered to help him set Jim free. Huck could not believe that Tom would be a slave stealer, but he kept his feelings to himself. Huck had intended merely to wait until there was a dark night and then break the padlock on the door of the shack where Jim was kept; but Tom said the rescue had to be done according to the books, and he laid out a highly complicated plan. It took fully three weeks of plotting, stealing, and deceit to get Jim out of the shack. The scheme resulted in a chase, however, in which Tom was shot in the leg. After Jim was recaptured, Tom was brought back to Aunt Sally’s house to recover from his wound. There, he revealed the fact that Miss Watson had died, giving Jim his freedom in her will. Huck was greatly relieved to learn that Tom was not really a slave stealer after all.
When Tom’s Aunt Polly arrived unexpectedly, she quickly set straight the identities of the two boys. Jim was given his freedom, and Tom gave him forty dollars. Tom told Huck that his money was still safely in the hands of Judge Thatcher, and when Huck moaned that his father would likely be back to claim it again, Jim told Huck that his father was dead; Jim had seen him lying in a derelict house they had seen floating in the river. Huck was ready to start out again because Aunt Sally said she thought she might adopt him and try to civilize him. Huck thought that he could not go through such a trial again after having tried to be civilized once before under the care of Widow Douglas.