Muff Potter Comes Himself — Tom's Conscious at Work
CLOSE 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.
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 stonyhearted 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 entire section is 1,484 words.)