With only trust in providence to help him free his friend, Huck finds the Phelps’s house, where Jim is supposedly being held. A pack of hounds threatens Huck, but a slave woman calls them off. The white mistress of the house, Sally, comes outside, delighted to see Huck because she is certain he is her nephew, Tom. Sally asks why he has been delayed the last several days. Taking the opportunity to conceal his identity by pretending to be her nephew, Huck explains that a cylinder head on the steamboat blew out. When Sally asks whether anyone was hurt in the explosion, Huck says no, a black person was killed. Sally expresses relief that the explosion was so “lucky.”
Huck is not sure he will be able to keep up the charade as Tom. When Sally’s husband, Silas, returns, however his enthusiastic greeting reveals to Huck that Sally and Silas are the aunt and uncle of none other than Tom Sawyer, Huck’s best friend. Hearing a steamboat go up the river, Huck heads out to the docks, supposedly to get his luggage but really to inform Tom of the situation should he arrive.
Huck meets Tom’s wagon coming down the road. Tom is at first startled by the “ghost,” believing that Huck was murdered back in St. Petersburg, but is eventually convinced that Huck is actually alive. Tom even agrees to help Huck free Jim. Huck is shocked by Tom’s willingness to do something so wrong by society’s standards: “Tom Sawyer fell considerable in my estimation,” he tells us.
Tom follows Huck to the Phelps house a half-hour later. The isolated family is thrilled to have another guest. Tom introduces himself as William Thompson from Ohio, stopping on his way to visit his uncle nearby. The lively Tom leans over and kisses his aunt in the middle of dinner, and she nearly slaps the boy she thinks is an impolite stranger. Laughing, Tom pretends that he is his own half-brother, Sid. The two boys wait for Sally and Silas to mention the runaway slave supposedly being held on their property, but the adults say nothing. However, when one of Sally and Silas’s boys asks to see the show that is passing through town—the duke and the dauphin’s—Silas says that “the runaway” alerted him to the fact that the show was a con.
That night, Huck and Tom sneak out of the house. As they walk on the road, they see a mob of townspeople running the duke and the dauphin, tarred and feathered, out of town on a rail. Huck feels bad for the two, and his ill feelings toward them melt away. “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another,” he observes. Huck concludes that a conscience is useless because it makes you feel bad no matter what you do. Tom agrees.
Tom told me what his plan was, and I see in a minute it was worth fifteen of mine for style, and would make Jim just as free a man as mine would, and maybe get us all killed besides.
Tom remembers seeing a black man delivering food to a shed on the Phelps property earlier that evening and deduces that the shed is where Jim is being held. His perceptive observation impresses Huck, who hatches a plan to free Jim by stealing the key to the shed and making off with Jim by night. Tom belittles this plan for its simplicity and lack of showmanship. Tom then comes up with a wild plan that Huck admits is fifteen times more stylish than his own—it might even get all three of them killed. Meanwhile, Huck finds it hard to believe that respectable Tom is going to sacrifice his reputation by helping a slave escape.
Huck and Tom get Jim’s keeper, a superstitious slave, to let them see Jim. When Jim cries out in recognition, Tom protects their secret by tricking Jim’s keeper into thinking the cry was the work of witches. Tom and Huck promise to dig Jim out and begin to make preparations.
Tom, disappointed that Silas Phelps has taken so few precautions to guard Jim, proclaims that he and Huck will have to invent all the obstacles to Jim’s rescue. Tom says they must saw Jim’s chain off instead of just lifting it off the bed’s framework, because that’s how it’s done in all the books. Tom rattles off a list of other things that are allegedly necessary in plotting an escape, including a rope ladder, a moat, and a shirt on which Jim can keep a journal, presumably written in his own blood. Sawing Jim’s leg off to free him from the chains would also be a nice touch. But since they are pressed for time, they will dig Jim out with case-knives, or large table knives. Despite all the theft that the plan entails, Tom chastises Huck for stealing a watermelon from the slaves’ garden and makes Huck give the slaves a dime as compensation.
As in the early chapters of the novel, Tom Sawyer again serves as a foil to Huck in these chapters. Brash, unconcerned with others, and dependent on the “authorities” of romantic adventure novels, Tom hatches a wild plan to free Jim. Huck recognizes the foolishness and potential danger of Tom’s plan and says it could get the three of them killed. It is not surprising that Tom’s willingness to help free Jim confuses Huck, for Tom has always concerned himself with conforming to social expectations and preserving his own reputation. Freeing Jim would seem to be objectionable on both counts. Huck, meanwhile, though willing to trade his life and reputation for Jim, thinks of himself as a poor, worthless member of white society. Huck sees Tom’s life as worth something more than that and believes that Tom has something to lose by helping to free Jim. In the end, though, we sense that Tom has no concept of the life-and-death importance of Jim’s liberation but instead just views the effort simply as one big opportunity for fun and adventure.
Twain makes a scathing comment on the insidious racism of the South in the exchange between Sally and Huck about the explosion on the steamboat. When Sally asks if anyone was hurt in the explosion, Huck replies with a crude racial slur, to which Sally replies, “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.” It is unclear whether Huck is simply role-playing—mimicking the attitudes of an average white Southern boy in pretending to be Tom—or whether he still retains some vestiges of the racism with which he has been brought up. Sally, however, is inarguably racist in her response, saying that it’s fortunate no one was hurt when she has just learned that a black man lost his life. Twain condemns this kind of automatic, offhand racism throughout the novel, but his criticism is at its most apparent here. This conversation provides yet another example of the confusing moral environment that surrounds Huck: Sally is clearly a “good” and kind woman in many traditional senses, yet she doesn’t think twice about considering the loss of a black man’s life no loss at all.