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As they get closer and closer to Cairo, both Huck and Jim begin getting fidgety. Jim's nervousness stems, of course, from his closeness to freedom, something he might never have dreamed of before his impulsive decision to run away.
Huck, however, is troubled by his gradual realization of exactly what he's doing. For the first time, he begins thinking about what it means to help a slave escape from his owner.
As we've seen in earlier chapters, Huck has a sense of right and wrong that would shame some of the people he refers to as his "betters." His conscience is now causing him a great deal of pain because he can't find an easy solution to his dilemma. Does he live up to the rules of the society he's been brought up in? Or does he do what seems to be the right thing for a friend?
When he hears Jim talk about getting an Abolitionist to help him steal his children-children that belong to someone Huck doesn't even know-Huck freezes with fear. At that point his conscience tells him to do the right thing-to turn the runaway slave in.
With the excuse that he's going to see how far they are from Cairo, Huck begins paddling the canoe to shore so he can tell the authorities about Jim. He loses some of his resolve, however, when his friend calls out that Huck is the only white gentleman who ever kept his promise to old Jim.
On his way to the shore he's stopped by two men looking for runaway slaves. He's now faced directly with the choice of "doing the right thing" or turning his friend in. He decides to do wrong. He tells the men he's traveling with a white man.
"I warn't man enough," he tells us. "Hadn't the spunk of a rabbit." It never occurs to him that what he's done might be considered the right thing. He has too low an opinion of himself to think that. Instead, he makes excuses for acting the way he did.
Huck feels terrible for having done wrong. But if he had turned Jim in, he certainly wouldn't have felt any better. So why do right, he reasons, when it doesn't feel any better?
What he's trying to work out here is a conflict that everyone has to face many times in life. Do you live by the rules that someone else has taught you, even if they don't make much sense to you? Or do you follow your own conscience, even if all the people you know live by the rules they were taught? There's no question about which answer Twain favors. He has pitted slavery against friendship, and that stacks the deck in favor of individual conscience over the rules of society.
But the same conflict comes up in other situations, where the opposing forces aren't as clearcut as slavery versus friendship. In those situations it may be a lot harder to decide which action to take.
This is one of the reasons that some people disapprove of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, especially for young readers. They say that the book glorifies a lawbreaker by making him likable and by manipulating the audience into approving of what he does. This is the same criticism that is often leveled at movies like The Godfather, or TV shows in which police officers break the law in order to catch criminals.
So the larger moral question of conscience versus society's rules is one you'll have to work out for yourself, probably dozens of times. But in the context of the novel, there really isn't any question. Huck has done the right thing, no matter how strongly he insists that he's been bad.
As the chapter comes to an end, the raft is split in two by a carelessly piloted steamboat. The vivid description of what it was like to see that boat coming and to be on the raft when it hit is one of the best passages in the book. Read it slowly to get its full effect.
After he's been separated from Jim, Huck makes his way to shore. He finds himself surrounded by a pack of barking dogs, and he knows enough not to move.