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HOME > Inspiring Novel > A Son of Courage > CHAPTER XIV OLD HARRY TURNS A TRICK
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 Maurice Keeler, wan, hollow-eyed, and miserable, was seated on a stool just outside the door in the early morning sunlight. Near him sat his mother, peeling potatoes, her portly form obscured by a trailing wistaria vine. What Maurice had endured during his two weeks with the measles nobody knew but himself. His days had been lonely, filled with remorse that he had ever been born to give people trouble and care; his nights longer even than the days. Hideous nightmares had robbed him of slumber. Old Scroggie's ghost had visited him almost nightly. The Twin Oaks robbers, ugly, hairy giants armed with red-hot pitch-forks, had bound him to a tree and applied fire to his feet. What use to struggle or cry aloud for help? Even Billy, his dearest chum, had sat and laughed with all the mouths of his eight heads at his pain. Of course he had awakened to learn these were but dreams; but to a boy dreams are closely akin to reality.  
And now, after days of loneliness and nights of terror, Maurice was up again and outside where he could catch the wood-breeze and smell the sweet odor of plants and clearing fires. He wondered how many years he had been away from it all. How old was he now? Why didn't his mother answer his questions? He did not realize that his voice was weak; he had forgotten that his mother was deaf. All he knew was that nobody cared a hang for him any more, not even his own mother. His weak hands clutched at the bandage at his throat, as though to tear it off and hurl it from him. His head sank weakly back against the wall, and the tears came to his eyes.
Suddenly those eyes opened wide. Was he dreaming again or did he hear the low croak of a crow? He twisted his head. There at his feet sat Croaker. The crow's beady eyes were fastened on him. Suspended from its neck was a cord and attached to the cord was a piece of yellow wrapping paper.
Maurice's white face slowly expanded in a grin. He glanced in the direction of his mother, then held out his hand to the crow with a lowspoken, "Come Croaker, ol' feller."
But Croaker shook his head and backed away, emitting a string of unintelligible utterances.
"Come Croaker," pleaded Maurice again. But the crow was obdurate. It is barely possible that he failed to recognize Maurice owing to the sick boy's altered looks or perhaps he expected a glimpse of the reward which was always his for the performing of a service. With one backward look from his bright eyes, he spread his short wings and sailed across to Mrs. Keeler, settling on her shoulder with a harsh croak, whereat that greatly-startled lady sat down on the gravel, her lap full of dirty water and potatoes.
What Mrs. Keeler might have done is not known, for just at this juncture a high-pitched voice came to her from the garden gate. "Get hold of him, Missus Keeler an' wring his black neck."
Mrs. Keeler, who heard the voice without catching Mrs. Wilson's words, struggled up. Croaker promptly sailed over to Maurice for protection. The boy broke the string attached to the note from Billy and reaching behind him secured from a plate a scrap of the dinner he had left uneaten. "Here Croaker," he whispered, "grab it quick. Now, back you go where things are safe," and he tossed the bird into the air. Croaker flew to a tree-top and proceeded to enjoy the reward of service well rendered.
Maurice glanced at the message, then his face fell. "Oh blame it all!" he muttered, "another of Bill's sign letters; looks like a fence that's been struck by lightnin'."
The several long perpendicular lines were possibly intended to represent the forest, but what was meant by the two vertical lines and the crosses directly beneath them Maurice did not know. Also there was a crudely drawn circle and, inside it, a small square. Maybe this was supposed to represent a hollow stump with a squirrel-trap in it, thought the perplexed Maurice. With a sigh of disgust he turned the paper over. Then his eyes brightened. Written there in Billy's cramped hand were these words and characters:
Maurice stared. So that was it! Billy and old Harry had found the goods stolen from the Twin Oaks store. There were doin's—big doin's, and Billy wanted him in on 'em. He leaned over to secure a view of his mother and Mrs. Wilson. Mrs. Keeler had removed her wet apron and was now seated on the bench beside her neighbor, listening to the latest gossip.
"That Jim Scroggie, the heir, has come back, an' he's rented the Stanley house," Mrs. Wilson was saying. "They say he's goin' to cut down the big woods an' sell the timber. I guess he intends stayin' right on, 'cause he brought his housekeeper an' his two children, a boy and a girl, with him."
"Is he tol'able well-to-do?" Mrs. Keeler asked.
"Why yes. I understand he's rich as porcupine stew," said Mrs. Wilson. "What he wants to come here fer, stirrin' up trouble, is beyond all knowin'. Him an' that man Hinter—they've been trampin' all over the country examinin' the land, cricks an' everythin'. They met up with my man, Tom, on the road yesterday an' they stopped him. Scroggie told him any time he wanted to bore fer water he'd put in a rig an' Tom needn't pay a cent if he didn't get him a well."
"Land o' Liberty! but he was generous!" cried Mrs. Keeler.
"Tom said he'd think it over an' let him know. I guess he was pretty short with Scroggie, knowin' as he does that the woods an' land rightly belong to young Stanhope."
"That it does," agreed Mrs. Keeler, indignantly. "An' him, poor young man, helpless through loss of his eyesight and all. You heard, of course, that Frank Stanhope and Erie Landon had broke their engagement?"
"Yes, everybody who knows 'em both an' loves 'em both has heard that. But what else could they do? He's not able to support a wife—the little farm is only enough fer himself, after that Burke an' his wife are paid fer workin' it and lookin' after the house, an' he's too high-spirited to ask Erie to share his burden and poverty."
Mrs. Keeler gulped and reached for her apron but recollecting that she had hung it up to dry, rubbed her eyes on her sleeve. "Cobin says that young man is jest about heartbroke, spite o' the smile he wears," she said. "Tries so hard to be cheerful, too, in spite of all. Preacher Reddick had supper with us last Sunday night an' he said the teacher was the finest specimen of Christly example he'd ever seen."
Mrs. Wilson cleared her throat. "They do say that Mr. Hinter visits the light-house regular every week. Have you heard that, Missus Keeler?"
"Yes, an' I'm wonderin' why?"
Mrs. Wilson rose and smoothed down her skirt. "Well I wouldn't go so far as to say I know why, but I have my suspicions," she declared. "One thing I do know, it's not 'cause he's so interested in a man sick with the asthma."
Mrs. Keeler looked at her sagely. "Erie would never marry any man like Hinter," she asserted.
"You can't tell what a girl'll do fer her father," said the other woman dubiously. "But there now," she broke off, "here I am visitin' away with you, jest as though there wasn't a batch of bread riz and kneaded at home, ready fer the oven. When I looked fer my bread-pans blest a one could I find. I know that Billy has lugged 'em off somewheres to use as bath-tubs fer his birds and lizards; so, thinks I, I'll jest run over an' ask Mrs. Keeler fer the loan of hern."
"Why to be sure," rejoined her neighbor, "come right along in an' I'll get 'em. I want you to see how nice my canned tomaters look." As they turned towards the house, Mrs. Wilson caught sight of Maurice, huddled in the big chair beneath the trailing vine.
"Well, fer the land sakes alive, Maurice!" she cried. "It is good to see you up ag'in. You've had a hard pull of it, poor lad. Dear heart! but it's thinned you a lot, too! Think of any mortal boy changin' so in two short weeks."
Maurice squirmed. "It seemed a lot longer than two weeks," he said faintly.
"There, there," cried the big-hearted woman, "of course it did."
Mrs. Keeler edged forward distrustfully. "What's that he says he's goin' to do in two weeks?" she asked, suspicion in her tones. "Cause if you think, young man, you be goin' to go in swimmin' ag'in, inside two weeks—" she pointedly addressed Maurice, "you got another think comin'. I'm goin' to see that you don't suffer no re-lapse."
"I don't want to go swimmin'" wailed Maurice, "but I do want'a walk a bit out through the woods, Ma."
"No." Mrs. Keeler shook her head with finality, "I can't trust you out o' my sight. You gotta set right there where you be."
"She don't know how awful lonesome it is settin' still so long," sighed Maurice, casting an appealing eye on Billy's mother. "I wisht you'd ask her to let me go as far as your place with you, Missus Wilson," he pleaded, lowering his voice. "Billy kin trail 'long back with me an' see I don't cut up any."
"Maurice," remonstrated Mrs. Wilson, smothering the sympathy in her heart in the clutch of duty, "it's wrong fer you to take advantage of your pore ma's deefness this way. I wouldn't send Willium back with you, anyways. What devilment you wouldn't think of he certainly would. No, I'll ask your ma to let you come, but it's Anson I'll have bring you home an' not Willium." And with a frown and a shake of her head she followed her neighbor into the house.
Maurice waited hopefully until his mother and Mrs. Wilson came out again. Then he turned eagerly towards them.
"Your Ma says you kin come," said Mrs. Wilson, "Providin' I don't let you near the cookie jar, and see that Anson brings you back safe."
"Mind you," his mother admonished as he followed Mrs. Wilson down the path, "if you come home with wet feet into bed you go and stay 'till snow flies."
When they reached the meadow-path, with the outbuildings between them and the watchful eyes of his mother, Maurice removed the shawl from about his throat. "I won't be needin' it any more, now," he said in answer to his companion's frown of protest. "It makes me too warm, an' the doctor he said whatever I did I mustn't sweat." Mrs. Wilson allowed the explanation to stand.
They climbed the rail fence and started to cross the stubble-field. As they neared the long row of brown-fruited sumachs Mrs. Wilson paused and stood in a listening attitude. "Say, isn't that Willium's varmint of a crow settin' up there on that ash?" she asked, pointing to the slender tree growing among the sumachs.
Maurice shook his head. "No ma'am, that ain't him," he said. "It's too big fer Croaker; it's a wild crow."
"Is it?" The woman started on again, then halted abruptly. "Well, it's queer how much his voice is like Willium's crow. Can't you hear him mutterin' and croakin'?"
"Yep, I hear him, but all crows do that," Maurice hastened to explain. Then as a shrill note, half a cluck and half a whistle, sounded from the bushes, he added quickly. "That's a hen partridge callin'. That crow's tryin' to scare her off her nest, most like, so's he kin s............
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