Huck and Jim continue their journey to Cairo, and, as they approach it, Jim trembles and is feverish with the thought of being so close to his freedom. Huck begins to tremble and feel feverish too, because he acknowledges that he is helping Jim to liberate himself. Huck’s conscience is troubled by this; it tells Huck that he should have told someone that Jim was running away, that he is meanly wronging Miss Watson, who has done nothing to harm him, by helping Jim, her property. Huck feels so mean and miserable that he wishes he were dead.
Huck has no control over his conscience, conditioned by society. It makes itself known to him not with a reasoned argument but a bodily symptom of sickness, and, as such, Huck can’t reason with himself to figure out what course of action he should take. Instead, at least for now, he can only do what conscience compels him to do. In relation to conscience, then, Huck is not free, though he will grow into such a freedom.
Restless and fidgety like Huck, Jim talks about what he will do when he is free, how he will work and save money so that he can buy his wife and two children out of slavery, or, if the owners of his wife and children won’t sell, how he would enlist the help of abolitionists to “steal them.” Huck is mortified to hear Jim speak this way, about stealing his children, who belong, Huck thinks, to “a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.” Huck is sorry to hear Jim lower himself in this way. He resolves to turn Jim in.
Jim’s course of action is very reasonable—he wants to liberate his family from unjust bondage—but Huck, in the throes of his Southern slave-owning conscience, can’t understand the logic of Jim wanting to free his family no matter which way, and does not see it as ridiculous that Jim’s family should belong more to their master than to Jim (or themselves). The slave-owner may never have harmed Huck, but he has harmed his slaves simply by owning them.
Jim spots in the distance what he thinks is Cairo. Huck volunteers to paddle over and see if it is, with the intent of turning Jim in. As he does, a skiff comes along, aboard which are two armed men. They tell Huck that they’re hunting five runaway slaves, and ask Huck if there are any people aboard his raft, and, if so, whether they’re white or black. Huck desperately wants to tell them about Jim, but the words won’t come out of his mouth. At last, Huck lies: he says the man aboard his raft is white. The men say they’ll see for themselves. Huck tells them he wishes they would, because, he lies, the white man on the raft is his father, who’s sick, along with his mother and Mary Ann, also aboard the raft. As the men paddle to investigate, Huck lets on that the illness that afflicts his family is both contagious and dangerous: smallpox. As soon as Huck does so, the men refuse to get anywhere near the raft, apologize to Huck, give him money, and paddle away.
Even though his conscience tells Huck to turn Jim in, Huck has an even stronger ethical force at work in him, one that literally prevents him from producing language to turn Jim in. If conscience is conditioned by society, this stronger ethical force in Huck is deeply personal, and, as such, it is not riddled with hypocrisies as conscience is. Huck’s lie to the men, which ultimately saves Jim from discovery, is an action more expressive of Huck’s personality than any other he could have made. Note that the slave-hunters Huck talks to are not vicious: they do the best they can to help Huck’s made-up sick family without futilely endangering themselves. It’s clear that their hunt for Jim is conscience-motivated, not vice-motivated. It’s just that a society that accepts slavery as okay is, by necessity, turning even good men into hypocrites.
Huck feels bad and low when he returns to the raft, but reasons that he would feel just as bad had he done “right” and turned Jim in. He figures it is easier to do wrong than right, and that the outcome of doing either is the same, and so decides to “always do whichever come handiest at the time.” Jim finds Huck hiding in the river, holding onto the raft. Jim praises Huck for his clever deception of the two men.
Given that Huck would feel bad regardless of what course of action he pursued, he realizes that conscience is not a firm means of determining what is right. He therefore endorses an ethic of handiness: whatever his heart tells him to do instinctually, Huck resolves to do. He is free, in this way, to be himself, and by following his heart and his compassion, Huck’s actions will show the depravity of the moral rules that dominate Southern society because of its embrace of racism.
Huck and Jim resume their journey, passing two towns, only to find out that neither are Cairo. Huck tells Jim that the two of them must have passed by Cairo when lost in the fog nights earlier. Jim doesn’t want to talk about it and blames the rattlesnake skin for their bad luck, a judgment with which Huck agrees.
Despite how excited Jim was to reach the free states, he gracefully accepts the bad news that he and Huck have passed Cairo. This may well be because of his superstitions: instead of blaming somebody for bad luck, he just moves on.
Huck and Jim learn they have reached the muddy Missouri River, and figure that Cairo is upstream. They decide to canoe there after resting. But when they return to where they left the raft and canoe, they find that the canoe is missing. They are forced to raft downriver till they reach a place where they can buy a canoe. As they drift, a steamboat comes at them full-speed. Huck supposes that the captain is playing a kind of game of getting as close to the raft as he can without touching it. But the steamboat keeps coming; a bell rings and men yell and cuss at Huck and Jim to get out of the way. At last, the steamboat crashes into the raft, throwing the pair overboard. Huck swims ashore and finds himself before a house, and then barking dogs swarm him. Huck knows better than to move.
Huck and Jim live in a world that doesn’t seem to have a bottom on bad luck. The pair seem to be in a rough spot after missing Cairo, but that doesn’t even compare to the bad luck of losing their canoe, and what’s worst of all, the bad luck of their random collision with the steamboat. We might wonder, though: is it childish of Huck to think the steamboat captain is playing a game, or merely optimistic? Or maybe Huck has seen captains play such games before? Whatever the case, after this tense scene, Huck and Jim are once again on their own.