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Chapter XV
 
 A  few  minutes  later  Tom  was  in the shoal water of the bar, wading
toward the Illinois shore. Before the depth reached his middle he was
half-way over; the current would permit no more wading, now, so he struck
out confidently to swim the remaining hundred yards. He swam quartering
upstream, but still was swept downward rather faster than he had expected.
However, he reached the shore finally, and drifted along till he found a
low place and drew himself out. He put his hand on his jacket pocket,
found his piece of bark safe, and then struck through the woods, following
the shore, with streaming garments. Shortly before ten o'clock he came out
into an open place opposite the village, and saw the ferryboat lying in
the shadow of the trees and the high bank. Everything was quiet under the
blinking stars. He crept down the bank, watching with all his eyes,
slipped into the water, swam three or four strokes and climbed into the
skiff that did "yawl" duty at the boat's stern. He laid himself down under
the thwarts and waited, panting.
Presently the cracked bell tapped and a voice gave the order to "cast
off." A minute or two later the skiff's head was standing high up, against
the boat's swell, and the voyage was begun. Tom felt happy in his success,
for he knew it was the boat's last trip for the night. At the end of a
long twelve or fifteen minutes the wheels stopped, and Tom slipped
overboard and swam ashore in the dusk, landing fifty yards downstream, out
of danger of possible stragglers.
He flew along unfrequented alleys, and shortly found himself at his
aunt's back fence. He climbed over, approached the "ell," and looked in at
the sitting-room window, for a light was burning there. There sat Aunt
Polly, Sid, Mary, and Joe Harper's mother, grouped together, talking. They
were by the bed, and the bed was between them and the door. Tom went to
the door and began to softly lift the latch; then he pressed gently and
the door yielded a crack; he continued pushing cautiously, and quaking
every time it creaked, till he judged he might squeeze through on his
knees; so he put his head through and began, warily.
"What makes the candle blow so?" said Aunt Polly. Tom hurried up. "Why,
that door's open, I believe. Why, of course it is. No end of strange
things now. Go 'long and shut it, Sid."
Tom disappeared under the bed just in time. He lay and "breathed"
himself for a time, and then crept to where he could almost touch his
aunt's foot.
"But as I was saying," said Aunt Polly, "he warn't BAD, so to say-only
mischEEvous. Only just giddy, and harum-scarum, you know. He warn't any
more responsible than a colt. HE never meant any harm, and he was the
best-hearted boy that ever was"-and she began to cry.
"It was just so with my Joe-always full of his devilment, and up to
every kind of mischief, but he was just as unselfish and kind as he could
be-and laws bless me, to think I went and whipped him for taking that
cream, never once recollecting that I throwed it out myself because it was
sour, and I never to see him again in this world, never, never, never,
poor abused boy!" And Mrs. Harper sobbed as if her heart would break.
"I hope Tom's better off where he is," said Sid, "but if he'd been
better in some ways-"
"SID!" Tom felt the glare of the old lady's eye, though he could not
see it. "Not a word against my Tom, now that he's gone! God'll take care
of HIM-never you trouble YOURself, sir! Oh, Mrs. Harper, I don't know how
to give him up! I don't know how to give him up! He was such a comfort to
me, although he tormented my old heart out of me, 'most."
"The Lord giveth and the Lord hath taken away-Blessed be the name of
the Lord! But it's so hard-Oh, it's so hard! Only last Saturday my Joe
busted a firecracker right under my nose and I knocked him sprawling.
Little did I know then, how soon-Oh, if it was to do over again I'd hug
him and bless him for it."
"Yes, yes, yes, I know just how you feel, Mrs. Harper, I know just
exactly how you feel. No longer ago than yesterday noon, my Tom took and
filled the cat full of Pain-killer, and I did think the cretur would tear
the house down. And God forgive me, I cracked Tom's head with my thimble,
poor boy, poor dead boy. But he's out of all his troubles now. And the
last words I ever heard him say was to reproach-"
But this memory was too much for the old lady, and she broke entirely
down. Tom was snuffling, now, himself-and more in pity of himself than
anybody else. He could hear Mary crying, and putting in a kindly word for
him from time to time. He began to have a nobler opinion of himself than
ever before. Still, he was sufficiently touched by his aunt's grief to
long to rush out from under the bed and overwhelm her with joy-and the
theatrical gorgeousness of the thing appealed strongly to his nature, too,
but he resisted and lay still.
He went on listening, and gathered by odds and ends that it was
conjectured at first that the boys had got drowned while taking a swim;
then the small raft had been missed; next, certain boys said the missing
lads had promised that the village should "hear something" soon; the
wise-heads had "put this and that together" and decided that the lads had
gone off on that raft and would turn up at the next town below, presently;
but toward noon the raft had been found, lodged against the Missouri shore
some five or six miles below the village-and then hope perished; they must
be drowned, else hunger would have driven them home by nightfall if not
sooner. It was believed that the search for the bodies had been a
fruitless effort merely because the drowning must have occurred in
midchannel, since the boys, being good swimmers, would otherwise have
escaped to shore. This was Wednesday night. If the bodies continued
missing until Sunday, all hope would be given over, and the funerals would
be preached on that morning. Tom shuddered.
Mrs. Harper gave a sobbing good-night and turned to go. Then with a
mutual impulse the two bereaved women flung themselves into each other's
arms and had a good, consoling cry, and then parted. Aunt Polly was tender
far beyond her wont, in her good-night to Sid and Mary. Sid snuffled a bit
and Mary went off crying with all her heart.
Aunt Polly knelt down and prayed for Tom so touchingly, so appealingly,
and with such measureless love in her words and her old trembling voice,
that he was weltering in tears again, long before she was through.
He had to keep still long after she went to bed, for she kept making
broken-hearted ejaculations from time to time, tossing unrestfully, and
turning over. But at last she was still, only moaning a little in her
sleep. Now the boy stole out, rose gradually by the bedside, shaded the
candle-light with his hand, and stood regarding her. His heart was full of
pity for her. He took out his sycamore scroll and placed it by the candle.
But something occurred to him, and he lingered considering. His face
lighted with a happy solution of his thought; he put the bark hastily in
his pocket. Then he bent over and kissed the faded lips, and straightway
made his stealthy exit, latching the door behind him.
He threaded his way back to the ferry landing, found nobody at large
there, and walked boldly on board the boat, for he knew she was tenantless
except that there was a watchman, who always turned in and slept like a
graven image. He untied the skiff at the stern, slipped into it, and was
soon rowing cautiously upstream. When he had pulled a mile above the
village, he started quartering across and bent himself stoutly to his
work. He hit the landing on the other side neatly, for this was a familiar
bit of work to him. He was moved to capture the skiff, arguing that it
might be considered a ship and therefore legitimate prey for a pirate, but
he knew a thorough search would be made for it and that might end in
revelations. So he stepped ashore and entered the woods.
He sat down and took a long rest, torturing himself meanwhile to keep
awake, and then started warily down the home-stretch. The night was far
spent. It was broad daylight before he found himself fairly abreast the
island bar. He rested again until the sun was well up and gilding the
great river with its splendor, and then he plunged into the stream. A
little later he paused, dripping, upon the threshold of the camp, and
heard Joe say:
"No, Tom's true-blue, Huck, and he'll come back. He won't desert. He
knows that would be a disgrace to a pirate, and Tom's too proud for that
sort of thing. He's up to something or other. Now I wonder what?"
"Well, the things is ours, anyway, ain't they?"
Pretty near, but not yet, Huck. The writing says they are if he ain't
back here to breakfast."
"Which he is!" exclaimed Tom, with fine dramatic effect, stepping
grandly into camp.
A sumptuous breakfast of bacon and fish was shortly provided, and as
the boys set to work upon it, Tom recounted (and adorned) his adventures.
They were a vain and boastful company of heroes when the tale was done.
Then Tom hid himself away in a shady nook to sleep till noon, and the
other pirates got ready to fish and explore.