A Tale Of Three Truants by Bret Harte

Story type: Literature

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.

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“Tribbses,” or “Tribbs’s Run,” was devoted to the work of cutting down the pines midway on a long regularly sloping mountain-side, which allowed the trunks, after they were trimmed and cut into suitable lengths, to be slid down through rude runs, or artificial channels, into the valley below, where they were collected by teams and conveyed to the nearest mills. The business was simple in the extreme, and was carried on by Tribbs senior, two men with saws and axes, and the natural laws of gravitation. The house was a long log cabin; several sheds roofed with bark or canvas seemed consistent with the still lingering summer and the heated odors of the pines, but were strangely incongruous to those white patches on the table-land and the white tongue stretching from the ridge to the valley. But the master was familiar with those Sierran contrasts, and as he had never ascended the trail before, it might be only the usual prospect of the dwellers there. At this moment Mr. Tribbs appeared from the cabin, with his axe on his shoulder. Nodding carelessly to the master, he was moving away, when the latter stopped him.

“Is Jackson here?” he asked.

“No,” said the father, half impatiently, still moving on. “Hain’t seen him since yesterday.”

“Nor has he been at school,” said the master, “either yesterday or to-day.”

Mr. Tribbs looked puzzled and grieved. “Now I reckoned you had kep’ him in for some devilment of his’n, or lessons.”

“Not ALL NIGHT!” said the master, somewhat indignant at this presumption of his arbitrary functions.

“Humph!” said Mr. Tribbs. “Mariar!” Mrs. Tribbs made her appearance in the doorway. “The schoolmaster allows that Jackson ain’t bin to school at all.” Then, turning to the master, he added, “Thar! you settle it between ye,” and quietly walked away.

Mrs. Tribbs looked by no means satisfied with or interested in the proposed tete-a-tete. “Hev ye looked in the bresh” (i. e., brush or underwood) “for him?” she said querulously.

“No,” said the master, “I came here first. There are two other boys missing,–Providence Smith and Julian Fleming. Did either of them”–

But Mrs. Tribbs had interrupted him with a gesture of impatient relief. “Oh, that’s all, is it? Playin’ hookey together, in course. ‘Scuse me, I must go back to my bakin’.” She turned away, but stopped suddenly, touched, as the master fondly believed, by some tardy maternal solicitude. But she only said: “When he DOES come back, you just give him a whalin’, will ye?” and vanished into her kitchen.

The master rode away, half ashamed of his foolish concern for the derelicts. But he determined to try Smith’s father, who owned a small rancho lower down on a spur of the same ridge. But the spur was really nearer Hemlock Hill, and could have been reached more directly by a road from there. He, however, kept along the ridge, and after half an hour’s ride was convinced that Jackson Tribbs could have communicated with Provy Smith without coming nearer Hemlock Hill, and this revived his former belief that they were together. He found the paternal Smith engaged in hoeing potatoes in a stony field. The look of languid curiosity with which he had regarded the approach of the master changed to one of equally languid aggression as he learned the object of his visit.

“Wot are ye comin’ to ME for? I ain’t runnin’ your school,” he said slowly and aggressively. “I started Providence all right for it mornin’ afore last, since when I never set eyes on him. That lets ME out. My business, young feller, is lookin’ arter the ranch. Yours, I reckon, is lookin’ arter your scholars.”

“I thought it my business to tell you your son was absent from school,” said the master coldly, turning away. “If you are satisfied, I have nothing more to say.” Nevertheless, for the moment he was so startled by this remarkable theory of his own responsibility in the case that he quite accepted the father’s callousness,–or rather it seemed to him that his unfortunate charges more than ever needed his protection. There was still the chance of his hearing some news from Julian Fleming’s father; he lived at some distance, in the valley on the opposite side of Hemlock Hill; and thither the master made his way. Luckily he had not gone far before he met Mr. Fleming, who was a teamster, en route. Like the fathers of the other truants, he was also engaged in his vocation. But, unlike the others, Fleming senior was jovial and talkative. He pulled up his long team promptly, received the master’s news with amused interest, and an invitation to spirituous refreshment from a demijohn in his wagon.

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“Me and the ole woman kind o’ spekilated that Jule might hev been over with Aunt Marthy; but don’t you worry, Mr. Schoolmaster. They’re limbs, every one o’ them, but they’ll fetch up somewhere, all square! Just you put two fingers o’ that corn juice inside ye, and let ’em slide. Ye didn’t hear what the ‘lekshun news was when ye was at Smith’s, did ye?”

The master had not inquired. He confessed he had been worried about the boys. He had even thought that Julian might have met with an accident.

Mr. Fleming wiped his mouth, with a humorous affectation of concern. “Met with an ACCIDENT? Yes, I reckon not ONE accident, but TWO of ’em. These yer accidents Jule’s met with had two legs, and were mighty lively accidents, you bet, and took him off with ’em; or mebbe they had four legs, and he’s huntin’ ’em yet. Accidents! Now I never thought o’ that! Well, when you come across him and THEM ACCIDENTS, you just whale ’em, all three! And ye won’t take another drink? Well, so long, then! Gee up!” He rolled away, with a laugh, in the heavy dust kicked up by his plunging mules, and the master made his way back to the schoolhouse. His quest for that day was ended.

But the next morning he was both astounded and relieved, at the assembling of school, to find the three truants back in their places. His urgent questioning of them brought only the one and same response from each: “Got lost on the ridge.” He further gathered that they had slept out for two nights, and were together all the time, but nothing further, and no details were given. The master was puzzled. They evidently expected punishment; that was no doubt also the wish of their parents; but if their story was true, it was a serious question if he ought to inflict it. There was no means of testing their statement; there was equally none by which he could controvert it. It was evident that the whole school accepted it without doubt; whether they were in possession of details gained from the truants themselves which they had withheld from him, or whether from some larger complicity with the culprits, he could not say. He told them gravely that he should withhold equally their punishment and their pardon until he could satisfy himself of their veracity, and that there had been no premeditation in their act. They seemed relieved, but here, again, he could not tell whether it sprang from confidence in their own integrity or merely from youthful hopefulness that delayed retribution never arrived!

It was a month before their secret was fully disclosed. It was slowly evolved from corroborating circumstances, but always with a shy reluctance from the boys themselves, and a surprise that any one should think it of importance. It was gathered partly from details picked up at recess or on the playground, from the voluntary testimony of teamsters and packers, from a record in the county newspaper, but always shaping itself into a consecutive and harmonious narrative.

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It was a story so replete with marvelous escape and adventure that the master hesitated to accept it in its entirety until after it had long become a familiar history, and was even forgotten by the actors themselves. And even now he transcribes it more from the circumstances that surrounded it than from a hope that the story will be believed.


Master Provy Smith had started out that eventful morning with the intention of fighting Master Jackson Tribbs for the “Kingship” of Table Ridge–a trifling territory of ten leagues square–Tribbs having infringed on his boundaries and claimed absolute sovereignty over the whole mountain range. Julian Fleming was present as referee and bottle-holder. The battle ground selected was the highest part of the ridge. The hour was six o’clock, which would allow them time to reach school before its opening, with all traces of their conflict removed. The air was crisp and cold,–a trifle colder than usual,–and there was a singular thickening of the sun’s rays on the ridge, which made the distant peaks indistinct and ghostlike. However, the two combatants stripped “to the buff,” and Fleming patronizingly took position at the “corner,” leaning upon a rifle, which, by reason of his superior years, and the wilderness he was obliged to traverse in going to school, his father had lent him to carry. It was that day a providential weapon.

Suddenly, Fleming uttered the word, “Sho!” The two combatants paused in their first “squaring off” to see, to their surprise, that their referee had faced round, with his gun in his hand, and was staring in another direction.

“B’ar!” shouted the three voices together. A huge bear, followed by its cubs, was seen stumbling awkwardly away to the right, making for the timber below. In an instant the boys had hurried into their jackets again, and the glory of fight was forgotten in the fever of the chase. Why should they pound each other when there was something to really KILL? They started in instant pursuit, Julian leading.

But the wind was now keen and bitter in their faces, and that peculiar thickening of the air which they had noticed had become first a dark blue and then a whitening pall, in which the bear was lost. They still kept on. Suddenly Julian felt himself struck between the eyes by what seemed a snowball, and his companions were as quickly spattered by gouts of monstrous clinging snowflakes. Others as quickly followed–it was not snowing, it was snowballing. They at first laughed, affecting to retaliate with these whirling, flying masses shaken like clinging feathers from a pillow; but in a few seconds they were covered from head to foot by snow, their limbs impeded or pinioned against them by its weight, their breath gone. They stopped blindly, breathlessly. Then, with a common instinct, they turned back. But the next moment they heard Julian cry, “Look out!” Coming towards them out of the storm was the bear, who had evidently turned back by the same instinct. An ungovernable instinct seized the younger boys, and they fled. But Julian stopped with leveled rifle. The bear stopped too, with sullen, staring eyes. But the eyes that glanced along the rifle were young, true, and steady. Julian fired. The hot smoke was swept back by the gale into his face, but the bear turned and disappeared in the storm again. Julian ran on to where his companions had halted at the report, a little ashamed of their cowardice. “Keep on that way!” he shouted hoarsely. “No use tryin’ to go where the b’ar couldn’t. Keep on!”

“Keep on–whar? There ain’t no trail–no nuthin’!” said Jackson querulously, to hold down a rising fear. It was true. The trail had long since disappeared; even their footprints of a moment before were filled up by the piling snow; they were isolated in this stony upland, high in air, without a rock or tree to guide them across its vast white level. They were bitterly cold and benumbed. The stimulus of the storm and chase had passed, but Julian kept driving them before him, himself driven along by the furious blast, yet trying to keep some vague course along the waste. So an hour passed. Then the wind seemed to have changed, or else they had traveled in a circle–they knew not which, but the snow was in their faces now. But, worst of all, the snow had changed too; it no longer fell in huge blue flakes, but in millions of stinging gray granules. Julian’s face grew hard and his eyes bright. He knew it was no longer a snow-squall, but a lasting storm. He stopped; the boys tumbled against him. He looked at them with a strange smile.

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“Hev you two made up?” he said.


“Make up, then.”


“Shake hands.”

They clasped each other’s red, benumbed fingers and laughed, albeit a little frightened at Julian. “Go on!” he said, curtly.

They went on dazedly, stupidly, for another hour.

Suddenly Provy Smith’s keen eyes sparkled. He pointed to a singular irregular mound of snow before them, plainly seen above the dreary level. Julian ran to it with a cry, and began wildly digging. “I knew I hit him,” he cried, as he brushed the snow from a huge and hairy leg. It was the bear–dead, but not yet cold. He had succumbed with his huge back to the blast, the snow piling a bulwark behind him, where it had slowly roofed him in. The half-frozen lads threw themselves fearlessly against his furry coat and crept between his legs, nestling themselves beneath his still warm body with screams of joy. The snow they had thrown back increased the bulwark, and drifting over it, in a few moments inclosed them in a thin shell of snow. Thoroughly exhausted, after a few grunts of satisfaction, a deep sleep fell upon them, from which they were awakened only by the pangs of hunger. Alas! their dinners–the school dinners–had been left on the inglorious battlefield. Nevertheless, they talked of eating the bear if it came to the worst. They would have tried it even then, but they were far above the belt of timber; they had matches–what boy has not?–but no WOOD. Still, they were reassured, and even delighted, with this prospect, and so fell asleep again, stewing with the dead bear in the half-impervious snow, and woke up in the morning ravenous, yet to see the sun shining in their faces through the melted snow, and for Jackson Tribbs to quickly discover, four miles away as the crow flies, the cabin of his father among the flaming sumacs.

They started up in the glare of the sun, which at first almost blinded them. They then discovered that they were in a depression of the table-land that sloped before them to a deep gully in the mountainside, which again dropped into the canyon below. The trail they had lost, they now remembered, must be near this edge. But it was still hidden, and in seeking it there was danger of some fatal misstep in the treacherous snow. Nevertheless, they sallied out bravely, although they would fain have stopped to skin the bear, but Julian’s mandate was peremptory. They spread themselves along the ridge, at times scraping the loose snow away in their search for the lost trail.

Suddenly they all slipped and fell, but rose again quickly, laughing. Then they slipped and fell again, but this time with the startling consciousness that it was not THEY who had slipped, but THE SNOW! As they regained their feet they could plainly see now that a large crack on the white field, some twenty feet in width, extended between them and the carcass of the bear, showing the glistening rock below. Again they were thrown down with a sharp shock. Jackson Tribbs, who had been showing a strange excitement, suddenly gave a cry of warning. “Lie flat, fellers! but keep a-crawlin’ and jumpin’. We’re goin’ down a slide!” And the next moment they were sliding and tossing, apparently with the whole snow-field, down towards the gullied precipice.

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What happened after this, and how long it lasted, they never knew. For, hurried along with increasing momentum, but always mechanically clutching at the snow, and bounding from it as they swept on, they sometimes lost breath, and even consciousness. At times they were half suffocated in rolling masses of drift, and again free and skimming over its arrested surface, but always falling, as it seemed to them, almost perpendicularly. In one of these shocks they seemed to be going through a thicket of underbrush; but Provy Smith knew that they were the tops of pine-trees. At last there was one shock longer and lasting, followed by a deepening thunder below them. The avalanche had struck a ledge in the mountain side, and precipitated its lower part into the valley.

Then everything was still, until Provy heard Julian’s voice calling. He answered, but there was no response from Tribbs. Had he gone over into the valley? They set up a despairing shout! A voice–a smothered one–that might be his, came apparently from the snow beneath them. They shouted again; the voice, vague and hollow, responded, but it was now surely his.

“Where are you?” screamed Provy.

“Down the chimbley.”

There was a black square of adobe sticking out of the snow near them. They ran to it. There was a hole. They peered down, but could see nothing at first but a faint glimmer.

“Come down, fellows! It ain’t far!” said Tribbs’s voice.

“Wot yer got there?” asked Julian cautiously.

“Suthin’ to eat.”

That was enough. In another instant Julian and Provy went down the chimney. What was a matter of fifteen feet after a thousand? Tribbs had already lit a candle by which they could see that they were in the cabin of some tunnel-man at work on the ridge. He had probably been in the tunnel when the avalanche fell, and escaped, though his cabin was buried. The three discoverers helped themselves to his larder. They laughed and ate as at a picnic, played cards, pretended it was a robber’s cave, and finally, wrapping themselves in the miner’s blankets, slept soundly, knowing where they were, and confident also that they could find the trail early the next morning. They did so, and without going to their homes came directly to school–having been absent about fifty hours. They were in high spirits, except for the thought of approaching punishment, never dreaming to evade it by anything miraculous in their adventures.

Such was briefly their story. Its truth was corroborated by the discovery of the bear’s carcass, by the testimony of the tunnel-man, who found his larder mysteriously ransacked in his buried cabin, and, above all, by the long white tongue that for many months hung from the ledge into the valley. Nobody thought the lanky Julian a hero,–least of all himself. Nobody suspected that Jackson Tribbs’s treatment of a “slide” had been gathered from experiments in his father’s “runs”–and he was glad they did not. The master’s pardon obtained, the three truants cared little for the opinion of Hemlock Hill. They knew THEMSELVES, that was enough.

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