Your pa, he says to me that I need to come and help you understand why he had to go away, why he had to join the Missouri Colored Regiment.[i] Says I was good at explaining and good at leaving my own self, and so I might as well be the one. But you knows what your pa’s doing, don’t you? You knows that he joined up so’s you all be free when he come back. That’s cause you listen good, child.
Your pa, he never did understand, though, about why I went away. Never did let me tell the whole story. Always said I loved that white boy better’n him. Never did understand. But that’s my fault, I reckon. Or maybe that’s just the way it goes.
Ole missus, that’s Miss Watson as was, she moved in with her sister, see? And I hads to go with her; didn’t have no choice, though that meant I was 20 miles or more from your nanny and your pa and your aunt ‘Lizabeth what as died before you was born, 20 miles instead a just a few. Used to come see them most every night, but after that— Johnny—your pa—had to be the man of the house whiles I was gone—much as slavery lets you to be a man. But love that white boy more’n him? Huhn! I tell yah—first words I says to that white boy, I says
“Name’s not ‘nigger,’ boy. Name’s Jim. And I lay I’ll teach you to know it.” Those was the first words I said to him.
Huh? You’re right. Told you, you’s a smart boy, and I admit it. Them’s the first words I thought when that little white trash moved in and got dressed up in all the fancy clothes and done called me nigger though he just crawled right outten a hogshead his own self. What I said aloud was “Yassuh, young massa?” Man’s gotta know where the corn pone comes from. It’s a tough world, it is, child, and don’t you forget it.
The boy weren’t so bad, though, as white folks go. Fact is, I believe he had a good heart in there when it weren’t messed up and confused. He told some of the story round about here, when that Tom Sawyer would let him talk. And Huck, he told the truth so far as he could, I guess. As he says, we all gots some stretchers in us. But he was the only white man I ever know that even tried to keep his word to old Jim. Only white man I ever know that thought a word was a something to keep, when talking to a nigger. Most of them’d sooner lie than look at you. But you know, they don’t really like looking now, do they?
Huck, he weren’t so bad, though. And he did try. But with a dad like his’n and that Tom Sawyer always raisin’ Cain and messing with his head, calling him chucklehead when he got a fair point an’ such truck as that. Huck never had no chance. But he tried, and I got to give him credit for trying. He was a good boy, take it all in all.
I done told you the story lots a times, about the time I runned.[ii] Had to. You know that. The devil he got in me. And old missus, she got scared. Was gonna sell me down to Orleans, she was. Never woulda seen your pa or ‘Lizabeth again. I lit out mighty quick, made a good plan, too, but there’s people everywhere, on account of they thought Huck done been killed. They was crawling all over both sides of the river.
I took my chance in the dark—you knows the story—how I hid in the driftwood, then latched onto the raft. I needed to get far away, and I knowed it. Heard all day from where I was hiding in that cooper’s shack about how Huck‘s killed on the Illinois side. Knowed oncet they realized I was gone, they’d blame me for it. Ridden by witches and with the devil’s own coin, they’d never believe it weren’t me, and they’d know I’d lay for Illinois. Where else a man going to go? It’d be like that nigger Joe in Boone County what killed that white trash with de axe, or that Teney in Callaway that they said killed that woman.[iii] I’d never a seen the inside of a jail.
But I didn’t have no luck. When the man come toward me with the lantern, there weren’t no use for it; I struck out for the island. Had to lay low, ‘cause they was hunting Huck, and pretty soon, they was hunting me, too. Couldn’t get much to eat. Knew I needed to swim for the Illinois shore afore I was too weak from hunger, but they was hunting too hard. And push come to shove, I kept thinking ‘bout your pa, and about poor little ‘Lizabeth, and somehow I couldn’t leave. My head was just a busting and so was my heart. Lit myself a fire to keep warm, made sure it didn’t smoke, but I kept seeing ‘Lizabeth’s eyes looking into mine. Wrapped the blanket round my head to shut them out, but that didn’t make no matter. Finally done fall asleep, though.
First thing I saw when I wakes up was that there dead white boy, big as life. Thought he was a ghost at first, I did, come to haint old Jim, who only tried to help him when his pa come back. Old Jim, who never told the missus bout all the times he sneaked out in the night to cat about. Niggers never have no luck—you remember that, child—it’ll save you lots a disappointment in this life. But no ghost ever blim-blammed like that, and so I knowed it was really him, his own self. That child could talk the hind leg off a donkey, he could. I kept quiet and let him run on, thinking mighty hard.
He had a gun, see. And people thought he was dead. Or was that just one a him and Tom Sawyer’s jokes again? It weren’t the first time white folks thought they was dead, though this’d be the first time a body had cared that Huck was gone, first time in his whole life. But there he was with a gun, a-chatterin and a-jammerin on. Was he a-hunting me? Hunting old Jim after he had his lark and made folks think he was dead?
Then he busts into my thoughts. Tells me to make up the fire and get breakfast, just like he owned me. That boy playing me, I thinks to myself, but I gots to know. Maybe he’s just a-hunting. So I axed him some questions, and found out he been there since the night he was killed. So whatever he’s a-playing at, he ain’t a-hunting old Jim. I tells him I’ll make a fire if he’ll hunt us up something for to cook on it.
I was expecting him to come back with some squirrel or some mud-turkles or such truck, or maybe a rabbit iffen I was lucky, and I hoped he had a knife with that gun, but I looked round for a sharp stone, just in case. When he come back, he come back with all kinds of stuff, a catfish and sugar and bacon and coffee and dishes, if that don’t beat all. I was set back something considerable, ‘cause I knew right away what it meant. He was a-fixing to run, to get away from his pa for good and all.
Lessen all that blood back at the cabin was his pa’s. Trash like Huck’s pap always gonna push someone too hard one time or tother. It’s inevitable. And Lord knew he’d pushed Huck often enough for the boy to push back. But no. Huck was a good boy, take it all in all. He sat down to eat with me, after all, and that set me back considerable more. Yes, he did, child, set hisself right down ‘cross from me to eat, and didn’t think nothing of it.
Told you, chile, he was the craziest white boy I ever did meet. Didn’t act like normal folks. Most white folks, y’know where you stand with them, they ain’t a puzzle. But Huck, he had a good heart on him, when he was by hisself. If only they’d a left him alone, he an old Jim might still be friends today. Hush, chile. Yes, I said “friend” and I’ll stand by it, cause that’s the way it was, so far as he was able. Boy had a good heart, but he aint got no show. Niggers aint the only ones with bad luck, though we gets most of it, and lots of that got white trash name on it. Huck was a good boy, though, and I was pretty sure that if he had disposed of his pa, he wouldn’t he be so chipper. But I hads to know.
So I says to him, “Looky here,” I says, “who wuz it dat ‘uz killed in dat shanty, ef it warn’t you?”
And he told me the blamed foolingest story I ever heard – faking his own death and all. Pretty smart, though, I guess, for a white boy, and he did need to get away from his pa, sure enough, but it was all too complicated, like all that truck Tom Sawyer always trying to get the boys up to, stuff only a chucklehead could believe. Soon as people could see straight, they’d know nobody done broke in and killed him. Lessen they thought it was me. Niggers don’ have no luck, I tell you child, and white folks don’ think we got no sense neither. They’d believe it was me, hang me, and think afterwards, if they took a mind to.
So I praised him up, told him that Tom Sawyer couldn’t get up no better plan than his’n, and you could see his pride. Puffed right up. Not a body tells that boy when he done something good. I do declare that old Jim was the first. I could see that. But then the light finally struck the boy. Finally occurred to him to wonder what I was a-doing there.
And I took a chancst. He was a-running away anyway, that was sure. And he’d want to get as far away from his pa as he could. No reason to go back to the missus, neither. What use was she to him? Couldn’t even get him back from his pa, she couldn’t. Her and her meddling landed him in this mess anyways. So I told him, and I made him promise not to tell.
Hush, child. I told you. Huck was a crazy white boy. And I believe his word meant something. Well, as much as it could mean, anyway. But he wasn’t a going back there nohow—why should he?—and he sure was a lonely boy. Never seed such a lonesome boy. He’d help old Jim, and Jim would help him.
So I told him the story, same as I’ve told you a million times—but the boy weren’t really listening—not like you, child—all he kept harping on was that I didn’t have nothing good to eat. Boy didn’t have the brains the Lord give him, no way. Huhn! Like a growed man couldn’t take care a hisself. I reminded him that I had to lay low, on account a him. Good to remind him that the spot I was in was on account a him. Lost my temper a bit, I did, then showed that no-account boy he didn’t know everything. Didn’t know nothing bout signs or nothing. Huhn!
The birds was a hoppin round way they do a fore it rains, and I told the boy that we needed to move all the traps to shelter. But jist like a white boy, he’s always trying to avoid work and extra trouble, so’s I had to talk him ‘round. Can’t talk straight ‘head with white folks, child, you remember that. They got to see it coming round, so’s they can feel it comes from them. You remember that. And remember old Jim told y’so.
Well, just as I know’d it would, soon the rains come a-pouring down. It rained and rained and rained. Huck and I sat warm and dry, with all the provisions. And there he was again, eating with me and not ‘spectin’ me to wait on him. Never seed anything like it. Sitting right next to me.
And then the boy says — and I’ll never forget what he says. He says, “Jim, this is nice. I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else but here.” White folks. Huhn! But you know, I think he meaned it. No body but old Jim ever just let the boy be. Folks always picking at him or whaling on him.
All I could thinks of, though, was Johnny and ‘Lizabeth. Didn’t want to be nowhere but here! Huhn! Only place I wants to be was with your nanny and your pa and ‘Lizabeth. Still. I had my way out, and I’d stick to it like glue. I’d come back fur ‘em, oncet I got to Cairo and to free territory and to make me some money. I’d come back fur’em.
I reminded the boy that he wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for old Jim. People takes care of them as takes care of you. But Huck needed reminding of that, lots. Nobody but old Jim ever really tried to take care of that boy, not even the missus. He was a good boy, take it all in all.
Well, the rains kept up and the river raised and raised. Ten-twelve days, it raised. We paddled round the island in Huck’s canoe nights, looking for stuff we could use, a raft, so’s we could move on. One night we catched a little section of a lumber raft—nice pine planks. It was twelve-foot wide and about fifteen- or sixteen-foot long, and the top stood above water six or seven inches, a solid level floor. I could build a shelter on there, for sleeping and hiding, and we’d be fine.
One night, we saw a house come down. Big old two-story frame house. Might be sumfn useful in there, but it was too dark to see and dangerous besides. So we made the canoe fast to it, ready to cut loose if need be. Daylight come, and we clumb aboard. Told Huck to stay while I check it out. I could make out a bed, and a table, and two old chairs, and lots of things around about on the floor; and there was clothes hanging against the wall. Hackles raised on the back a my neck as I saw the body on the floor near the back. “Hello, you!” I hollered loud. Huck yelled, too, but the man didn’t move. He weren’t asleep, — he’s dead. I told Huck, “You hold still — I’ll go en see.”
Man was naked, shot in the back. White folks. Huhn. Always borrowing trouble, like there aint nuff in the world already. I come ‘round so I could see his face, and I was glad it was still dark, glad I told the boy to wait back there. ‘Cause damned if it wasn’t Huck’s pa. Damn white trash anyway. Dead as a doornail, but still popping up when nobody wants ‘em. No ‘count trash. Coming here to haint Huck. Poor child. But at least his fears was over now. Huck was free. I took a deep breath to call out and tell him so.
But my neck prickled. And stead of the dead man, I was seeing ‘Lizabeth’s eyes swimming afore mine, sad and puddled with tears. I seed Johnny, your pa, with his jaw set an’ eyes blazing, then I felt him throwing hisself into my hug. So hard to be a man when they won’t lets you.
I throwed some rags over that trash that nobody never wanted no way, trash that finally got what he’s a been axin’ for ‘most since he was born. Then I took a deep breath and looked into ‘Lizabeth’s eyes, tucked Johnny under mah arm. I called over my shoulder to Huck, “It’s a dead man. Yes, indeedy; naked, too. He’s been shot in de back. I reckon he’s been dead two or three days. Come in, Huck, but doan’ look at his face — it’s too gashly.”
© Sharon D. McCoy, 19 September 2013 — with more than a little help from Sam Clemens, Jim, George Griffin, John T. Lewis, John W. Jones, Mary Ann Cord, Henry Clay Bruce, Lucy Delany, James W. C. Pennington, William Still, and all the contributors to the WPA slave narratives from Missouri. Not to mention my deep appreciation and gratitude for the scholars over the years whose sensitive and provocative readings of history, Twain, and the many voices that make up America have enriched my own, and whose friendship enriches my life
This piece, excerpted from a longer work-in-progress, was first presented at the American Humor Studies Association/Mark Twain Circle Quadrennial Conference in 2010 in San Diego. Much has been written of Huckleberry Finn’s moral dilemma and his famous decision to “go to hell” for his friend. But as an escaped Missouri slave in the 1830-40s with few prospects and suspected of murder, Jim is already in hell — and faced with a moral dilemma of his own; Huck’s a dear boy, but it is high time the man got a word in edgewise.
[i] “It is estimated that nearly 8,400 African American soldiers enrolled in Missouri regiments. Even more African American Missourians enrolled in out-of-state units, representing about 39% of the prewar black males in the state (Missouri State Archives http://www.sos.mo.gov/archives/education/usct/usct_missouri.asp).
[ii] This is one place in the novel where Huck lets Jim speak at length—ironically, because his own responses show he isn’t really listening.
[iii] Joe killed a white man with an ax. Teney killed a white woman—stabbed her and crushed her skull (Greene, Kremer, and Holland, Missouri’s Black Heritage 47).