When he did, it was a thorough and satisfactory performance.
It was about the period of moving into the new house (1844) that the Tom Sawyer days--that is to say, the boyhood of Samuel Clemens--may be said to have begun. Up to that time he was just Little Sam, a child--wild, and mischievous, often exasperating, but still a child--a delicate little lad to be worried over, mothered, or spanked and put to bed. Now, at nine, he had acquired health, with a sturdy ability to look out for himself, as boys will, in a community like that, especially where the family is rather larger than the income and there is still a younger child to claim a mother's protecting care. So "Sam," as they now called him, "grew up" at nine, and was full of knowledge for his years. Not that he was old in spirit or manner--he was never that, even to his death--but he had learned a great number of things, mostly of a kind not acquired at school.
They were not always of a pleasant kind; they were likely to be of a kind startling to a boy, even terrifying. Once Little Sam--he was still Little Sam, then--saw an old man shot down on the main street, at noonday. He saw them carry him home, lay him on the bed, and spread on his breast an open family Bible which looked as heavy as an anvil. He though, if he could only drag that great burden away, the poor, old dying man would not breathe so heavily. He saw a young emigrant stabbed with a bowie-knife by a drunken comrade, and noted the spurt of life-blood that followed; he saw two young men try to kill their uncle, one holding him while the other snapped repeatedly an Allen revolver which failed to go off. Then there was the drunken rowdy who proposed to raid the "Welshman's" house one dark threatening night--he saw that, too. A widow and her one daughter lived there, and the ruffian woke the whole village with his coarse challenges and obscenities. Sam Clemens and a boon companion, John Briggs, went up there to look and listen. The man was at the gate, and the warren were invisible in the shadow of the dark porch. The boys heard the elder woman's voice warning the man that she had a loaded gun, and that she would kill him if he stayed where he was. He replied with a ribald tirade, and she warned that she would count ten- that if he remained a second longer she would fire. She began slowly and counted up to five, with him laughing and jeering. At six he grew silent, but he did not go. She counted on: seven--eight--nine--The boys watching from the dark roadside felt their hearts stop. There was a long pause, then the final count, followed a second later by a gush of flame. The man dropped, his breast riddled. At the same instant the thunderstorm that had been gathering broke loose. The boys fled wildly, believing that Satan himself had arrived to claim the lost soul.
Many such instances happened in a town like that in those days. And there were events incident to slavery. He saw a slave struck down and killed with a piece of slag for a trifling offense. He saw an abolitionist attacked by a mob, and they would have lynched him had not a Methodist minister defended him on a plea that he must be crazy. He did not remember, in later years, that he had ever seen a slave auction, but he added:
"I am suspicious that it is because the thing was a commonplace spectacle, and not an uncommon or impressive one. I do vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained together lying in a group on the pavement, waiting shipment to a Southern slave-market. They had the saddest faces I ever saw."
It is not surprising that a boy would gather a store of human knowledge amid such happenings as these. They were wild, disturbing things. They got into his dreams and made him fearful when he woke in the middle of the night. He did not then regard them as an education. In some vague way he set them down as warnings, or punishments, designed to give him a taste for a better life. He felt that it was his own conscience that made these things torture him.