Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XII

Tom Sawyer’s Band

They ranged from Holliday’s Hill on the north to the Cave on the south, and over the fields and through all the woods about. They navigated. the river from Turtle Island to Glasscock’s Island (now Pearl, or Tom Sawyer’s Island), and far below; they penetrated the wilderness of the Illinois shore. They could run like wild turkeys and swim like ducks; they could handle a boat as if born in one. No orchard or melon patch was entirely safe from them; no dog or slave patrol so vigilant that they did not sooner or later elude it. They borrowed boats when their owners were not present. Once when they found this too much trouble, they decided to own a boat, and one Sunday gave a certain borrowed craft a coat of red paint (formerly it had been green), and secluded it for a season up Bear Creek. They borrowed the paint also, and the brush, though they carefully returned these the same evening about nightfall, so the painter could have them Monday morning. Tom Blankenship rigged up a sail for the new craft, and Sam Clemens named it Cecilia, after which they didn’t need to borrow boats any more, though the owner of it did; and he sometimes used to observe as he saw it pass that, if it had been any other color but red, he would have sworn it was his.

Some of their expeditions were innocent enough. They often cruised up to Turtle Island, about two miles above Hannibal, and spent the day feasting. You could have loaded a car with turtles and their eggs up there, and there were quantities of mussels and plenty of fish. Fishing and swimming were their chief pastimes, with general marauding for adventure. Where the railroad-bridge now ends on the Missouri side was their favorite swimming-hole — that and along Bear Creek, a secluded limpid water with special interests of its own. Sometimes at evening they swam across to Glasscock’s Island — the rendezvous of Tom Sawyer’s “Black Avengers” and the hiding-place of Huck and Nigger Jim; then, when they had frolicked on the sand-bar at the head of the island for an hour or more, they would swim back in the dusk, a distance of half a mile, breasting the strong, steady Mississippi current without exhaustion or fear. They could swim all day, likely enough, those graceless young scamps. Once — though this was considerably later, when he was sixteen — Sam Clemens swam across to the Illinois side, and then turned and swam back again without landing, a distance of at least two miles, as he had to go. He was seized with a cramp on the return trip. His legs became useless, and he was obliged to make the remaining distance with his arms. It was a hardy life they led, and it is not recorded that they ever did any serious damage, though they narrowly missed it sometimes.

One of their Sunday pastimes was to climb Holliday’s Hill and roll down big stones, to frighten the people who were driving to church. Holliday’s Hill above the road was steep; a stone once started would go plunging and leaping down and bound across the road with the deadly swiftness of a twelve-inch shell. The boys would get a stone poised, then wait until they saw a team approaching, and, calculating the distance, would give it a start. Dropping down behind the bushes, they would watch the dramatic effect upon the church-goers as the great missile shot across the road a few yards before them. This was Homeric sport, but they carried it too far. Stones that had a habit of getting loose so numerously on Sundays and so rarely on other days invited suspicion, and the “Patterollers” (river patrol — a kind of police of those days) were put on the watch. So the boys found other diversions until the Patterollers did not watch any more; then they planned a grand coup that would eclipse anything before attempted in the stone-rolling line.

A rock about the size of an omnibus was lying up there, in a good position to go down hill, once, started. They decided it would be a glorious thing to see that great boulder go smashing down, a hundred yards or so in front of some unsuspecting and peaceful-minded church-goer. Quarrymen were getting out rock not far away, and left their picks and shovels over Sundays. The boys borrowed these, and went to work to undermine the big stone. It was a heavier job than they had counted on, but they worked faithfully, Sunday after Sunday. If their parents had wanted them to work like that, they would have thought they were being killed.

Finally one Sunday, while they were digging, it suddenly got loose and started down. They were not quite ready for it. Nobody was coming but an old colored man in a cart, so it was going to be wasted. It was not quite wasted, however. They had planned for a thrilling result; and there was thrill enough while it lasted. In the first place, the stone nearly caught Will Bowen when it started. John Briggs had just that moment quit digging and handed Will the pick. Will was about to step into the excavation when Sam Clemens, who was already there, leaped out with a yell:

“Look out, boys, she’s coming!”

She came. The huge stone kept to the ground at first, then, gathering a wild momentum, it went bounding into the air. About half-way down the hill it struck a tree several inches through and cut it clean off. This turned its course a little, and the negro in the cart, who heard the noise, saw it come crashing in his direction and made a wild effort to whip up his horse. It was also headed toward a cooper-shop across the road. The boys watched it with growing interest. It made longer leaps with every bound, and whenever it struck the fragments the dust would fly. They were certain it would demolish the negro and destroy the cooper-shop. The shop was empty, it being Sunday, but the rest of the catastrophe would invite close investigation, with results. They wanted to fly, but they could not move until they saw the rock land. It was making mighty leaps now, and the terrified negro had managed to get directly in its path. They stood holding their breath, their mouths open. Then suddenly they could hardly believe their eyes; the boulder struck a projection a distance above the road, and with a mighty bound sailed clear over the negro and his mule and landed in the soft dirt beyond-only a fragment striking the shop, damaging but not wrecking it. Half buried in the ground, that boulder lay there for nearly forty years; then it was blasted up for milling purposes. It was the last rock the boys ever rolled down. They began to suspect that the sport was not altogether safe.

Sometimes the boys needed money, which was not easy to get in those days. On one occasion of this sort, Tom Blankenship had the skin of a coon he had captured, which represented the only capital in the crowd. At Selms’s store on Wild Cat corner the coonskin would bring ten cents, but that was not enough. They arranged a plan which would make it pay a good deal more than that. Selins’s window was open, it being summer-time, and his pile of pelts was pretty handy. Huck — that is to say, Tom — went in the front door and sold the skin for ten cents to Selms, who tossed it back on the pile. Tom came back with the money and after a reasonable period went around to the open window, crawled in, got the coonskin, and sold it to Selms again. He did this several times that afternoon; then John Pierce, Selins’s clerk, said:

“Look here, Selms, there is something wrong about this. That boy has been selling us coonskins all the afternoon.”

Selms went to his pile of pelts. There were several sheepskins and some cowhides, but only one coonskin — the one he had that moment bought. Selms himself used to tell this story as a great joke.

Perhaps it is not adding to Mark Twain’s reputation to say that the boy Sam Clemens — a pretty small boy, a good deal less than twelve at this time — was the leader of this unhallowed band; yet any other record would be less than historic. If the band had a leader, it was he. They were always ready to listen to him — they would even stop fishing to do that — and to follow his projects. They looked to him for ideas and organization, whether the undertaking was to be real or make-believe. When they played “Bandit” or “Pirate” or “Indian,” Sam Clemens was always chief; when they became real raiders it is recorded that he was no less distinguished. Like Tom Sawyer, he loved the glare and trappings of leadership. When the Christian Sons of Temperance came along with a regalia, and a red sash that carried with it rank and the privilege of inventing pass-words, the gaud of these things got into his eyes, and he gave up smoking (which he did rather gingerly) and swearing (which he did only under heavy excitement), also liquor (though he had never tasted it yet), and marched with the newly washed and pure in heart for a full month — a month of splendid leadership and servitude. Then even the red sash could not hold him in bondage. He looked up Tom Blankenship and said:

“Say, Tom, I’m blamed tired of this! Let’s go somewhere and smoke!” Which must have been a good deal of a sacrifice, for the uniform was a precious thing.

Limelight and the center of the stage was a passion of Sam Clemens’s boyhood, a love of the spectacular that never wholly died. It seems almost a pity that in those far-off barefoot old days he could not have looked down the years to a time when, with the world at his feet, venerable Oxford should clothe him in a scarlet gown.

He could not by any chance have dreamed of that stately honor. His ambitions did not lie in the direction of mental achievement. It is true that now and then, on Friday at school, he read a composition, one of which — a personal burlesque on certain older boys — came near resulting in bodily damage. But any literary ambition he may have had in those days was a fleeting thing. His permanent dream was to be a pirate, or a pilot, or a bandit, or a trapper-scout; something gorgeous and active, where his word — his nod, even — constituted sufficient law. The river kept the pilot ambition always fresh, and the cave supplied a background for those other things.

The cave was an enduring and substantial joy. It was a real cave, not merely a hole, but a subterranean marvel of deep passages and vaulted chambers that led away into bluffs and far down into the earth’s black silences, even below the river, some said. For Sam Clemens the cave had a fascination that never faded. Other localities and diversions might pall, but any mention of the cave found him always eager and ready for the three-mile walk or pull that brought them to its mystic door. With its long corridors, its royal chambers hung with stalactites, its remote hiding-places, its possibilities as the home of a gallant outlaw band, it contained everything that a romantic boy could love or long for. In Tom Sawyer Indian Joe dies in the cave. He did not die there in real life, but was lost there once, and was living on bats when they found him. He was a dissolute reprobate, and when, one night, he did die there came up a thunder-storm so terrific that Sam Clemens at home and in bed was certain that Satan had come in person for the half-breed’s wicked soul. He covered his head and said his prayers industriously, in the fear that the evil one might conclude to save another trip by taking him along, too.

The treasure-digging adventure in the book had a foundation in fact. There was a tradition concerning some French trappers who long before had established a trading-post two miles above Hannibal, on what is called the “bay.” It is said that, while one of these trappers was out hunting, Indians made a raid on the post and massacred the others. The hunter on returning found his comrades killed and scalped, but the Indians had failed to find the treasure which was buried in a chest. He left it there, swam across to Illinois, and made his way to St. Louis, where he told of the massacre and the burial of the, chest of gold. Then he started to raise a party to go back for it, but was taken sick and died. Later some men came up from St. Louis looking for the chest. They did not find it, but they told the circumstances, and afterward a good many people tried to find the gold.

Tom Blankenship one morning came to Sam Clemens and John Briggs and said he was going to dig up the treasure. He said he had dreamed just where it was, and said if they would go with him and dig he would divide up. The boys had great faith in dreams, especially Tom’s dreams. Tom’s unlimited freedom gave him a large importance in their eyes. The dreams of a boy like that were pretty sure to mean something. They followed Tom to the place with some shovels and a pick, and he showed them where to dig. Then he sat down under the shade of a papaw-tree and gave orders.

They dug nearly all day. Now and then they stopped to rest, and maybe to wonder a little why Tom didn’t dig some himself; but, of course, he had done the dreaming, which entitled him to an equal share.

They did not find it that day, and when they went back next morning they took two long iron rods; these they would push and drive into the ground until they struck something hard. Then they would dig down to see what it was, but it never turned out to be money. That night the boys declared they would not dig any more. But Tom had another dream. He dreamed the gold was exactly under the little papaw-tree. This sounded so circumstantial that they went back and dug another day. It was hot weather too, August, and that night they were nearly dead. Even Tom gave it up, then. He said there was something about the way they dug, but he never offered to do any digging himself.

This differs considerably from the digging incident in the book, but it gives us an idea of the respect the boys had for the ragamuffin original of Huckleberry Finn.8

8 [Much of the detail in this chapter was furnished to the writer by John Briggs shortly before his death in 1907.]

Tom Blankenship’s brother, Ben, was also drawn upon for that creation, at least so far as one important phase of Huck’s character is concerned. He was considerably older, as well as more disreputable, than Tom. He was inclined to torment the boys by tying knots in their clothes when they went swimming, or by throwing mud at them when they wanted to come out, and they had no deep love for him. But somewhere in Ben Blankenship there was a fine generous strain of humanity that provided Mark Twain with that immortal episode in the story of Huck Finn — in sheltering the Nigger Jim.

This is the real story:

A slave ran off from Monroe County, Missouri, and got across the river into Illinois. Ben used to fish and hunt over there in the swamps, and one day found him. It was considered a most worthy act in those days to return a runaway slave; in fact, it was a crime not to do it. Besides, there was for this one a reward of fifty dollars, a fortune to ragged outcast Ben Blankenship. That money and the honor he could acquire must have been tempting to the waif, but it did not outweigh his human sympathy. Instead of giving him up and claiming the reward, Ben kept the runaway over there in the marshes all summer. The negro would fish and Ben would carry him scraps of other food. Then, by and by, it leaked out. Some wood-choppers went on a hunt for the fugitive, and chased him to what was called “Bird Slough.” There trying to cross a drift he was drowned.

In the book, the author makes Huck’s struggle a psychological one between conscience and the law, on one side, and sympathy on the other. With Ben Blankenship the struggle — if there was a struggle — was probably between sympathy and cupidity. He would care very little for conscience and still less for law. His sympathy with the runaway, however, would be large and elemental, and it must have been very large to offset the lure of that reward.

There was a gruesome sequel to this incident. Some days following the drowning of the runaway, Sam Clemens, John Briggs, and the Bowen boys went to the spot and were pushing the drift about, when suddenly the negro rose before them, straight and terrible, about half his length out of the water. He had gone down feet foremost, and the loosened drift had released him. The boys did not stop to investigate. They thought he was after them and flew in wild terror, never stopping until they reached human habitation.

How many gruesome experiences there appear to have been in those early days! In ‘The Innocents Abroad’ Mark Twain tells of the murdered man he saw one night in his father’s office. The man’s name was McFarlane. He had been stabbed that day in the old Hudson-McFarlane feud and carried in there to die. Sam Clemens and John Briggs had run away from school and had been sky larking all that day, and knew nothing of the affair. Sam decided that his father’s office was safer for him than to face his mother, who was probably sitting up, waiting. He tells us how he lay on the lounge, and how a shape on the floor gradually resolved itself into the outlines of a man; how a square of moonlight from the window approached it and gradually revealed the dead face and the ghastly stabbed breast.

“I went out of there,” he says. “I do not say that I went away in any sort of a hurry, but I simply went; that is sufficient. I went out of the window, and I carried the sash along with me. I did not need the sash, but it was handier to take it than to, leave it, and so I took it. I was not scared, but I was considerably agitated.”

He was not yet twelve, for his father was no longer alive when the boy reached that age. Certainly these were disturbing, haunting things. Then there was the case of the drunken tramp in the calaboose to whom the boys kind-heartedly enough carried food and tobacco. Sam Clemens spent some of his precious money to buy the tramp a box of Lucifer matches — a brand new invention then, scarce and high. The tramp started a fire with the matches and burned down the calaboose, himself in it. For weeks the boy was tortured, awake and in his dreams, by the thought that if he had not carried the man the matches the tragedy could not have happened. Remorse was always Samuel Clemens’s surest punishment. To his last days on earth he never outgrew its pangs.

What a number of things crowded themselves into a few brief years! It is not easy to curtail these boyhood adventures of Sam Clemens and his scapegrace friends, but one might go on indefinitely with their mad doings. They were an unpromising lot. Ministers and other sober-minded citizens freely prophesied sudden and violent ends for them, and considered them hardly worth praying for. They must have proven a disappointing lot to those prophets. The Bowen boys became fine river-pilots; Will Pitts was in due time a leading merchant and bank director; John Briggs grew into a well-to-do and highly respected farmer; even Huck Finn — that is to say, Tom Blankenship — is reputed to have ranked as an honored citizen and justice of the peace in a Western town. But in those days they were a riotous, fun-loving band with little respect for order and even less for ordinance.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05