Ralph Hartsook had not thought schoolteachers were judged by their muscular ability when he applied for the job as schoolmaster of Flat Creek, Indiana. Before long, however, he learned his competence would be judged by his power to keep his pupils from driving him out of the schoolhouse. His first step was to make friends with Bud and Bill Means, sons of the school trustee, in whose house he was to board for a time. He was tired from the ten miles he had trudged to apply for the job, but he walked almost the same distance that evening when he went coon hunting with the boys.
Ralph Hartsook held his own against the pranks and challenges of his pupils until the night of the big spelling bee. Then, before most of the people in Flat Creek, he was defeated by the Meanses’ bound-girl, Hannah Thomson.
Finding himself strongly attracted to the girl, he escorted her home after the spelling bee.
Kept awake by curiosity about Hannah’s past, Ralph had trouble sleeping that night. At two in the morning he got up, restless, and strolled down the road toward the schoolhouse. Three horsemen passed him in the darkness, one riding a horse with white markings. A few minutes later, Dr. Small rode by, returning, Ralph supposed, from a night call. He went back to Pete Jones’s house, where he was staying at the time. The next morning, he discovered that the horse with the white markings stood in Pete’s stable, and he learned from Shocky Thomson, Hannah’s young brother, that there had been a robbery the night before.
He decided not to tell what he knew. He had no proof that Pete Jones was connected with the housebreaking, and it would have been awkward to explain his own ramblings at an early hour. To add to his misery that day, Mirandy Means, who had been casting sheep’s eyes at him, informed him that her brother Bud was fond of Hannah.
Squire Hawkins invited Ralph to spend the weekend with him. Walking toward the Squire’s house with Shocky, who took the same direction home from school, he learned from the boy that his father was dead and his blind mother in the poorhouse. When Hannah went to live with the Meanses, he had been taken in by Mr. Pearson, a basket maker.
That evening, Ralph was surprised to see Dr. Small’s horse tied in front of Granny Sander’s cabin. She had a reputation as a witch among the people of Flat Creek, and she was a malicious gossip. Ralph did not know that the doctor was busy planting the seeds of rumors in Granny Sander’s mind, rumors that Ralph had been a philanderer at home, and that he was somehow implicated in the robbery. Small disliked Ralph, though Ralph had never been able to find any reason for it. Rumor had done its ugly work by Sunday morning. At church, Ralph’s neighbors had little to say to him.
On Christmas day, which came the following week, the boys did not follow the custom of asking the teacher for a holiday. Instead, Bud and others of the older pupils barricaded themselves in the schoolhouse to keep Ralph from entering and...
(The entire section is 1245 words.)