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A Tale Of Three Truants
by [?]

The schoolmaster at Hemlock Hill was troubled that morning. Three of his boys were missing. This was not only a notable deficit in a roll-call of twenty, but the absentees were his three most original and distinctive scholars. He had received no preliminary warning or excuse. Nor could he attribute their absence to any common local detention or difficulty of travel. They lived widely apart and in different directions. Neither were they generally known as “chums,” or comrades, who might have entered into an unhallowed combination to “play hookey.”

He looked at the vacant places before him with a concern which his other scholars little shared, having, after their first lively curiosity, not unmixed with some envy of the derelicts, apparently forgotten them. He missed the cropped head and inquisitive glances of Jackson Tribbs on the third bench, the red hair and brown eyes of Providence Smith in the corner, and there was a blank space in the first bench where Julian Fleming, a lanky giant of seventeen, had sat. Still, it would not do to show his concern openly, and, as became a man who was at least three years the senior of the eldest, Julian Fleming, he reflected that they were “only boys,” and that their friends were probably ignorant of the good he was doing them, and so dismissed the subject. Nevertheless, it struck him as wonderful how the little world beneath him got on without them. Hanky Rogers, bully, who had been kept in wholesome check by Julian Fleming, was lively and exuberant, and his conduct was quietly accepted by the whole school; Johnny Stebbins, Tribbs’s bosom friend, consorted openly with Tribbs’s particular enemy; some of the girls were singularly gay and conceited. It was evident that some superior masculine oppression had been removed.

He was particularly struck by this last fact, when, the next morning, no news coming of the absentees, he was impelled to question his flock somewhat precisely concerning them. There was the usual shy silence which follows a general inquiry from the teacher’s desk; the children looked at one another, giggled nervously, and said nothing.

“Can you give me any idea as to what might have kept them away?” said the master.

Hanky Rogers looked quickly around, began, “Playin’ hook–” in a loud voice, but stopped suddenly without finishing the word, and became inaudible. The master saw fit to ignore him.

“Bee-huntin’,” said Annie Roker vivaciously.

“Who is?” asked the master.

“Provy Smith, of course. Allers bee-huntin’. Gets lots o’ honey. Got two full combs in his desk last week. He’s awful on bees and honey. Ain’t he, Jinny?” This in a high voice to her sister.

The younger Miss Roker, thus appealed to, was heard to murmur that of all the sneakin’ bee-hunters she had ever seed, Provy Smith was the worst. “And squirrels–for nuts,” she added.

The master became attentive,–a clue seemed probable here. “Would Tribbs and Fleming be likely to go with him?” he asked.

A significant silence followed. The master felt that the children recognized a doubt of this, knowing the boys were not “chums;” possibly they also recognized something incriminating to them, and with characteristic freemasonry looked at one another and were dumb.

He asked no further questions, but, when school was dismissed, mounted his horse and started for the dwelling of the nearest culprit, Jackson Tribbs, four miles distant. He had often admired the endurance of the boy, who had accomplished the distance, including the usual meanderings of a country youth, twice a day, on foot, in all weathers, with no diminution of spirits or energy. He was still more surprised when he found it a mountain road, and that the house lay well up on the ascent of the pass. Autumn was visible only in a few flaming sumacs set among the climbing pines, and here, in a little clearing to the right, appeared the dwelling he was seeking.