One morning, while canoeing through a creek in search of berries, Huck encounters two men running, pleading with Huck to let them on his canoe, begging for their lives. Huck tells the men not to jump into the boat but to run through the bushes and then wade through the creek before finally meeting up with him later, to throw the pursuing dogs off their scent. The men do so.
This scene recalls the earlier scene in which Huck and Jim flee from the slave-hunters who have arrived at Jackson’s Island. And, indeed, Huck’s shared experience with these men might be one of the motives he has for helping them to secure their freedom.
After meeting up with the two men, Huck learns that the older one got into trouble for selling “an article to take tartar off the teeth,” while the other, younger, one for running a religious “temperance revival” against drinking alcohol while, his devotees discover, drinking himself. The two con men agree to work together. The older one specializes in cons that involve doctoring and preaching.
The con men play society against itself for personal gain: they exploit silly trends, like oral cosmetics, as well as societal religiosity. Unlike most people Huck has met, these two men are not hypocrites, even though they are liars. Indeed, in some ways they seem similar to Huck and Jim!
When the younger con man learns this, he bemoans the fact that he is forced to con people, having once been “so high.” He claims to have been born the Duke of Bridgewater. Huck and Jim pity the man after he begins to cry, and the duke tells the pair that they should bow when they address him, and do so by his official titles, and to wait on him, which Huck and Jim do. Later, the older con man claims, also crying, that he is “the late Duphin,” or King of France. Huck and Jim begin to comfort the king as well as the duke.
As Tom creates a miniature society with his Gang, so too do the con men make a miniature society of the raft, with themselves as rulers and Huck and Jim as servants. Huck and Jim opt into this arrangement out of pity, and maybe genuine credulity on Jim’s part.
The duke becomes sour, but the king tells him that he should cheer up. Life on the raft is comfortable, with plenty of food and ease. The king asks for the duke’s hand, and the duke gives it to him. Huck and Jim immediately feel more comfortable after the unfriendliness on the raft dissipates; for, as Huck thinks, “what you want above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied, and feel right and kind towards the others.” Indeed, even though Huck knows that the duke and king are con men, he doesn’t say anything, so as to avoid conflict.
The duke gets sour at the king because the king managed to lie himself into a higher rank than the duke. After Huck witnesses the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud, maybe as a result of witnessing it, he becomes very wary of human conflict, actual and potential. In his ideal society, people would be kind toward one another. Even though he knows that the duke and king are con men, he doesn’t expose them, because they seem harmless and because exposing them may only cause unnecessary conflict.