Chapter XI
 
 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.
"Muff Potter!"
"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.