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 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 again.
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 remarked:
“It was within three feet of Muff Potter when it done 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 tell?”
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 at present.