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HOME > Inspiring Novel > A Son of Courage > CHAPTER VI THE RUSE THAT FAILED
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 Out behind the wood-shed Maurice Keeler, by the dim light of a smoky lantern, was splitting kindling for the morning's fire when something clammy and twisting dropped across the back of his neck.  
"Holy Smoke! Bill, take it away!" he yelled, as his chum's laugh fell on his ears.
"Gosh! you ain't got no nerve a'tall, Maurice! It's only a milk-snake. I picked it up on my way home from the store. I'm goin' to put it in the menagerie."
Maurice sat down weakly on a block and wiped his face on his sleeve.
"Hang it all, Bill!" he complained, "what do you see in snakes to make you want'a handle 'em so? I'm scared to death of 'em; I own it."
"I s'pose this feller an' ol' Spotba'll fight to a finish," said Billy, "but I aim to keep one snake of each kind, so let 'em scrap it out. It won't hurt that old womper to get a good drubbin' anyway."
He held the newly captured snake along his arm, its head resting in the palm of his hand. The dim light was sufficiently strong for Maurice to note the cold gleam in its eyes, and he shuddered. "Some day you'll try your monkey-shines on a puff-adder er a black-snake," he prophesied, "an' then you'll wish you hadn't gone clean crazy."
Billy grinned and dropped the snake into his jacket pocket. "I brought your Ma's groceries," he said. "Is she in the house?"
"Yep; she's cannin' thimble-berries. Jest wait till I get an armful of kindlin', an' I'll go in with you."
Billy put the basket down again. "Say, what did she want with all that hoarhound candy?" he asked curiously.
Maurice chuckled. "Why, Missis Spencer told her what great stuff it was to use in doin' up thimble-berries; sorta takes the flat taste off 'em. So Ma, she's goin' to try it."
Billy whistled. "But fifty sticks, Maurice! It's almost more'n she'll need, don't you think?"
"'Course it's a lot too much. S'pose we try on' get hold of some of it, Bill?"
"Suits me," agreed Billy, "but jest how? That's the question."
Maurice stooped and filled his arms with a load of kindling. "I dunno how," he replied, "but you usually find out a way fer everythin'. What's the matter with you lettin' on you lost part of that candy?"
Billy shook his head. "No good, she'd be onto us bigger'n a barn. Tell you what we might do. We might take bad colds an' sorta work on her sympathies."
"Humph! an' be kept close in the house fer a week er so, an' have to take physic an' stuff. No good, Bill!"
"No, ours won't be them kind of colds," Billy explained. "They'll be the dry-cough, consumption kind, that either cure up quick er slow. All we gotta do is dig up an Injun turnip out o' the bush an' nibble it. It'll pucker our throats up so tight we'll be hoarse enough to sing bass in the choir."
Maurice let his kindling fall. "Gee!" he exclaimed, "I've got a piece of Injun turnip in my pocket right now. Ain't that lucky!"
"How'd you come to have it?"
"Dug it up to fool Fatty Watland with. Was goin' to tell him it was a ground-nut. I've had it in fer him ever since he shoved me off the bridge into the creek."
"Let's have it."
Billy took the Indian turnip from his chum and with his knife scraped off a portion of white, pungent pulp. "Now then, put this on the back of your tongue, an' leave it there," he directed.
Maurice grimaced as he licked the bit of pulp from the knife blade. "'Course we both know this danged thing is pisin," he said, uncertainly. "Maybe we're fools, Bill?"
"There's no maybe about it, far's you're concerned. Do as I tell you; slide it 'way back so's it'll tighten your throat. That's right," as Maurice heroically obeyed. "Now, let's get up to the house."
"But you haven't took yourn!" cried Maurice.
"Don't need to take mine," Billy informed him. "What's the use of me takin' any; ain't one bad cough enough?"
Maurice squirmed in torture. Already the burning wild turnip was getting in its work. His throat felt as though it were filled with porcupine quills. He tried to voice a protest against the injustice Billy had done him but it ended in a wheeze.
"Fine," commended Billy. "A cold like that oughta be good fer half the hoarhound, anyway. Let's go in afore the thing wears off. You take the basket, I'll carry the kindlin' fer you."
He led the way to the house, Maurice following meekly with the market-basket, eyes running tears and throat burning.
Mrs. Keeler was bending over a kettle on the stove, from which the aroma of wild thimble-berries came in fragrant puffs.
"So you're back at last, are you?" she addressed Billy, crossly. "Thought you'd never come. I've been waitin' on that sugar an' stuff fer two hours er more. Now, you go into the pantry and get somethin' to eat, while I unpack this basket. I know you must be nigh starved."
"Had my supper," shouted Billy. He threw the kindling into the wood box and grinned encouragement at Maurice, who had sunk miserably down on a stool.
Mrs. Keeler lifted the basket which Maurice had placed on the floor at his feet. "What's the matter with you?" she asked, giving him a shake.
Maurice looked up at her with tear-filled eyes, and tried to say something. The effort was vain; not a sound issued from his swollen lips. Billy promptly advanced to give first aid.
"Maurice's sick," he shouted in the deaf woman's ear.
"Sick? Where's he sick?" Mrs. Keeler lifted the basket to the table and coming back to Maurice, put a berry-stained finger under his chin. "Stick out your tongue!" she commanded. "Billy, you fetch that lamp over here."
Maurice opened his mouth and protruded his stained and swollen tongue.
"Good gracious!" cried the mother, in alarm. "That good fer nuthin' boy has gone an' caught the foot an' mouth disease from Kearnie's sheep."
"It's jest a bad cold he's caught," Billy reassured her. "He's so hoarse he can't speak."
"Well, it might as well be one thing as another," frowned the woman. "That boy catches everythin' that comes along, anyway. I s'pose I'll have to quit my preservin' to mix him up a dose of allaways."
Maurice shivered and gazed imploringly at Billy.
"If you had somethin' sweet an' soothin' to give him," Billy suggested. "Pine syrup, er hoarhound, er somethin' like that, now—"
"Why, maybe you're right," agreed Mrs. Keeler, "an' I do declare! I've got some hoarhound right here in this basket. Ain't it lucky I sent fer it?"
The boys exchanged glances. The scheme was working! Mrs. Keeler went back to the basket on the table and started to remove the packages, one by one.
Billy addressed his chum in tones so low the deaf woman could not hear. "Now, maybe you'll think I know what I'm doin'," he commenced, then jumped guiltily, as a cry of indignation came from the other side of the room. Mrs. Keeler was untying the parcels, one after another, and emptying their contents in the basket. Billy stared. Each of the parcels contained—sawdust.
She turned slowly, stern eyes looking above her glasses straight into his startled and apprehensive ones.
"Well?" she said ominously, "I s'pose you think you've played a smart trick, you young limb!"
Billy tried to say something. His lips moved dumbly. Moisture gathered between his shoulder blades, condensed as it met cold fear, and trickled in tiny rivulets down his shivering spine.
He glanced at the door. Mrs. Keeler's square form interposed itself staunchly between him and that means of exit. His wild eyes strayed to the face of his chum. Maurice was grinning a glad, if swollen, grin. There was nothing to do but face the music.
Mrs. Keeler was advancing towards him now; advancing slowly like some massed avenging force of doom. "I didn't do that," he finally managed to articulate. "I didn't play no trick on you, Missus Keeler."
His knees knocked together. Unconsciously, his hand felt gropingly back toward the wood-box in search of some kind of support. Mrs. Keeler's deafness was accountable for her misunderstanding of his words. She brought her advance to a halt and stood panting.
"I didn't play no trick on you," Billy repeated.
"I heard you the first time," panted the indignant woman. "You said if I teched you you'd take a stick to me. So you'd commit murder on a woman who has been a second mother to you, would you! You'd brain me with a stick out of that wood-box! Oh! Oh!" She lifted her apron and covered her face.
In a moment Billy was beside her. "Oh Missus Keeler," he pleaded, miserably. "I didn't say that. Don't think I'd do anythin' to hurt you, 'cause I wouldn't. An' I wouldn't play no dirty trick on you. You've been good to me an' I think a heap o' you, even if you do cuff me sometimes. Mr. Spencer put up that basket himself while I was over to the cottage, gittin' my supper."
Slowly the apron was lowered. Slowly the woman's hands dropped to Billy's shoulders and she gazed into his uplifted eyes. Then she did a thing which was quite characteristic of her. She bent and gave each of the wide grey eyes upraised to hers a resounding kiss. Then, roughly pushing him away, she reached for her shawl and hat hanging on the wall.
"You boys stay right here and keep fire under that kettle," she commanded. "I'm goin' to take that old Caleb Spencer's sawdust back to him an' give him a piece of my mind." And picking up the basket she went out, banging the door behind her.
The boys gazed at each other and Maurice's chuckle echoed Billy's, although it was raspy and hoarse.
"Throat burnin' yet?" inquired Billy.
"You bet," Maurice managed to answer.
"Well, you go along to the milkhouse an' lick the cream off a pan of milk. It'll settle that Injun turnip quick."
Maurice scooted for the back door. He returned in a little while with white patches of cream adhering to chin and nose. "Gosh!" he sighed gratefully, "that was soothin'."
"What dye s'pose made Caleb Spencer put up that job on me?" questioned Billy. "I never fooled him any. I did cut some letters on his new bench, but he needn't feel so sore at that."
"Well, jest you wait till Ma asks him why he did it," laughed Maurice, who now was almost normal again. "Ma's great on gettin' explanations, she is."
Billy went down into his pocket and drew forth a furry object about the size of a pocket knife and held it under his chum's eyes.
"Gollies!" exclaimed Maurice. "It's your rabbit foot charm. Where d'you find it, Bill?"
"Found it this mornin' down by the pine grove near old Scroggie's ha'nted house. Stood on this side of the creek an' sent ol' Moll into the grove. She brought it to me. She's a great little dog, Moll. Now we're ready to hunt ol' Scroggie's buried money an' lost will."
"What! Tonight?"
"Sure. Do you want somebody else to stumble on it first? We've gotta hunt tonight an' every night till we find it, that's all."
"But we can't go now. I dassent leave them preserves. If I do Ma'll skin me. Anyways, ain't we goin' to let Elgin an' Fatty in on it, Bill?"
"Naw, you know what they'd do. They'd let the cat out o' the bag sure. They're all right fer light work sech as swipin' watermelon an' helpin' make a seine-haul but they ain't no good at treasure an' will huntin'."
"Maybe you're right," Maurice said, "but I'm goin' t' tell you I ain't feelin' any too much like prowlin' 'round that ha'nted house this night er any other night."
Billy pushed his friend into a chair and stood before him. "Now look here, Scarecat," he said, "you're goin' to help me find that money an' will, an' I'll tell you why. You know what happened to Mr. Stanhope, the teacher, don't you? He's gone blind an' has had to give up teachin' the school, hasn't he?"
Maurice nodded, his face grave.
"Well, what kind of a feller is he, anyway? Come, answer up."
"He's a mighty fine feller," cried Maurice enthusiastically.
"You're right, he is. Well, what's he goin' to do now? He can't work, kin he?"
"Gollies, no. I never thought—'
"Well, it's time you did think. Now you know that ol' Scroggie left him everythin' he owned, don't you?"
"'Course I do."
"Only he can't prove it, kin he?"
"No! Not without the will."
"Well, then?" Billy sat down on a corner of the table and eyed his friend reproachfully.
Maurice squirmed uneasily, then he said: "'Course, Bill, it's up to you an' me to find that will. But I'll be shot if I'd do what we'll have to do fer anybody else in the world but him."
"Say, here's a piece of news fer you," cried Billy. "We're goin' to get ol' Harry O'Dule to help us. He's the seventh son of a seventh son. We're goin' over to his cabin to see him tonight."
"Gee! Bill, we oughta find it if we get Harry to help, but I can't see how I'm goin' to get away," said Maurice ruefully.
Just here a step sounded on the gravel outside and a knock fell on the door. Maurice opened the door and in stepped Anson.
He glanced suspiciously from one to the other of the boys, then said: "Ma sent me to see what happened to you, Bill. She says come on home to your supper."
"Had my supper," Billy informed him. "You go on back and tell Ma that."
"You've gotta come, too."
"No, Anse, I promised Missus Keeler that me an' Maurice would keep fire under that preservin' kettle till she gits back from the store. I need the ten cents to buy fish hooks with, besides—'
"Gee! Bill, is she goin' to give you ten cents fer helpin' Maurice keep fire on?" asked Anson eagerly.
"Well, she didn't 'zactly promise she would, but—"
"Say, fellers, let me stay with you an' we'll split three ways, eh?" suggested Anson.
"No," said Billy, with finality.
"'Tain't enough fer a three-way split," said Maurice.
"Well, you can't hinder me from stayin', an' I figger I'm in fer a third," said Anson, seating himself doggedly near the stove.
Billy's face cracked into a grin which he was careful to turn from his step-brother. "How'd you like to do all the firin' an' get all the reward, Anse?" he suggested. "I've got a milk-snake here that I want'a get put safe away in the root-house afore Ma takes in the lantern. Maurice'll come along an' help me stow him away."
"All right, I'll stay an' fire," agreed Anson. "But remember," as the other boys reached for their hats, "I ain't agoin' to share up what Missus Keeler gives me with you fellers."
"You're welcome to keep all she gives you fer yourself," said Billy.
"Sure," said Maurice. "She'll likely hold somethin' back fer me, anyway. Don't ferget to keep a good fire on, Anse," he admonished, as he followed Billy outside.

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