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Huck introduces himself as someone who appeared in an earlier book by Mark Twain, reminding us of what happened at the end of that story. Though he won't mention it until Chapter 3, his irresponsible father has left him on his own. Huck has been living with Widow Douglas, a kind woman who wants to teach him all the things his father has neglected, the things all normal kids learn.
He tells us about Miss Watson, the widow's sister, who is bent on teaching him manners and religion, and about Tom Sawyer, a boy Huck looks up to because of his wide reading and vivid imagination. He's also friendly with Jim, Miss Watson's black slave.
Huck's father returns and takes him away from the widow. When his father begins beating him too often, Huck runs away and makes it look as though he's been murdered. He hides out on a nearby island, intending to take off after his neighbors stop searching for his body.
Jim is also hiding on the island, since he has run away from Miss Watson, who was about to sell him and separate him from his wife and children. They decide to escape together, and when they find a large raft, their journey along the Mississippi River begins.
After a couple of adventures on the river, their raft is hit by a steamboat, and Huck and Jim are separated. Huck goes ashore and finds himself at the home of the Grangerfords, who allow him to come and live with them. At first he admires these people for what he thinks is their class and good taste. But when he learns about the deaths caused by a feud with another family, he becomes disgusted with them.
By this time Jim has repaired the raft, and Huck rejoins him. They're soon joined by two men who are escaping the law and who claim to be a duke and the son of the king of France. Huck knows they're actually small-time con men, but he pretends to believe them.
After watching these frauds bilk people of their money in two towns, Huck is forced to help them try to swindle an inheritance out of three girls who were recently orphaned. He goes along at first because he doesn't want them to turn Jim in, but eventually he decides that the thieves have gone too far. He invents a complicated plan to escape and to have them arrested.
The plan almost works, but at the last minute the two crooks show up and continue to travel with Huck and Jim. When all their money-making schemes begin to fail, they sell Jim to a farmer in one of the towns they're visiting. Huck learns about this and decides to free his friend.
The farmer turns out to be Tom Sawyer's uncle, and through a misunderstanding he and his wife think Huck is Tom. When Tom himself arrives, Huck brings him up to date on what's happening. Tom pretends to be his own brother Sid, and the two boys set about to rescue Jim.
True to his imaginative style, Tom devises a plan that is infinitely more complicated than it has to be. Eventually they actually pull it off and reach the raft without being caught. Tom, however, has been shot in the leg, and Jim refuses to leave until the wound has been treated.
The result is that Jim is recaptured and Tom and Huck have to explain what they've done. Tom, it turns out, knew all along that Miss Watson had set Jim free in her will, so everyone can now return home together. Huck, however, thinks he's had enough of civilization, and hints that he might take off for the Indian Territory instead of going back home.