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HOME > Inspiring Novel > A Son of Courage > CHAPTER XX BILLY MEETS A LOVELY GHOST
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 Billy found Croaker just where he thought he would be—clinging to the latch of the menagerie door and peering with one black eye through the chink above it at the owls, the while he hurled guttural insults at them.  
"Croaker," commanded his master, "get away from there!"
Croaker balanced himself by flopping one short wing and laughed at the hisses of the angered owls. He hopped from his perch to the peak of the shanty as Billy reached for him and there he sat, demurely turning his head from one side to the other and muttering low in his throat.
"Croaker, come down here, I want'a ask you somethin'." Billy's hand went into his pocket and the crow stood at attention. Then as the hand came away empty he emitted an angry croak and wobbled further along the ridge-board.
"Come, nice old Croaker, tell me where you found the gold," coaxed Billy.
Croaker turned his back and murmured a whole string of "coro-corrs," which to Billy meant just as plain as words could say it that he hadn't the slightest intention of telling anything.
"All right then, Croaker, I'll call Ringdo, an' feed him your dinner."
Now, for the swamp-coon, Croaker had all the jealousy and hatred a crow is capable of feeling and as a last resort, whenever he was obdurate and disobedient as he was now, his master could nearly always bring him to submission by the mere mention of Ringdo's name. At Billy's threat Croaker raised his head and poured forth such a jargon of heart-broken lamentation that the listening owls inside crouched low in terror, their amber eyes questioning the meaning of the awful sound.
Billy bent and patted an imaginary something on the ground. "Good ol' Ringdo," he said. "Nice ol' Ringdo." That was the last straw. With a croak of anguish Croaker swooped down and lit on his master's shoulder. Promptly five fingers gripped his feet.
"Now, you black beggar, I've got you," exulted Billy. This fact did not seem to worry Croaker in the least. His beady eyes were busy searching for signs of his enemy. Ringdo being nowhere visible, his neck feathers gradually lowered and his heavy beak closed. He snuggled close against Billy's face and told him in throaty murmurs how much he loved him. Billy laughed, and seating himself on a log, placed the crow on his knees.
"Croaker," he addressed the bird, "you must'a found ol' Scroggie's gold. He had the only gold money this country ever saw, so you must have found it some way. I don't s'pose it'll do Teacher Stanhope any good, 'cause it'll go to Jim Scroggie's father, but, Croaker, it's up to us to get that money an' turn it over; hear me?"
Croaker blinked and seemed to be thinking hard.
"You see," Billy went on, "maybe the will'll be where the gold is. You be a real good feller an' show me where you found the gold-piece."
"Sure I will," agreed Croaker. He hopped down and started pigeon-toeing across the glade, peering back to see if Billy were coming.
Billy followed slowly, hoping, fearing, trusting that Croaker's intentions were of the best. The crow was carrying on a murmured conversation with himself, flapping his wings, nodding his head sagely and in other ways manifesting his eagerness to accommodate his master. When he grew tired of walking he flew and Billy had to run to keep him in sight. Straight through the grove, across the green valley and on through the stumpy fallow went the crow, Billy panting and perspiring behind. Straight on to the pine-hedged creek and still on, until the lonely pine grove of the haunted house came into view.
"Oh, Jerusalem!" gasped Billy, "An' me without my rabbit foot charm." He realized where Croaker was leading him—straight to the haunted house. He wiped his streaming face on his sleeve and determined he'd go through with it.
Croaker paused for a moment in the edge of the grove to look back at Billy. The bird was plainly excited; his wings were spread, his neck feathers erect, and his raucous voice was scattering nesting birds from the evergreens in flocks.
With wildly beating heart Billy passed through the pines, the twilight gloom adding to his feeling of awe. Croaker had become strangely silent and now flitted before him like a black spirit of a crow. It was almost a relief when at last the tumble-down shack grew up in its tangle of vines and weeds. Once more into the daylight and Croaker took up the interrupted thread of his conversation with himself. He ducked and side-stepped and gave voice to expressions which Billy had never heard him use before.
"I wish he'd shut up," he murmured to himself, "but I'm scared to make him, fer fear he'll get sulky an' quit cold on the job."
Croaker, mincing in and out among the rag-weeds, led straight across the yard to a tiny ramshackle building which at one time might have been a root-house. Billy, feeling that at any moment an icy hand might reach out and grip his windpipe, followed. It was a terrible risk he was running but the prize was worth it. His feet seemed weighted with lead. At last he reached the root-house and leaned against it, dizzy and panting. Then he looked about for Croaker. The crow had vanished!
A thrill of alarm gripped Billy's heart-strings. Where had Croaker disappeared to? What if old Scroggie's ghost had grabbed him and cast over him the cloak of invisibility? Then in all likelihood he would be the next to feel that damp, clutching shroud.
Suddenly his fears vanished. Croaker's voice, high-pitched and jubilant, had summoned him from somewhere on the other side of the building. As quickly as the weeds and his lagging feet would permit Billy joined him. Croaker was standing erect on a pile of old bottles, basking in the radiance of the colored lights which the sun drew from them. Undoubtedly in his black heart he felt that his master would glory in this glittering pile even as he gloried in it; for was there not in this heap of dazzling old bottles light enough to make the whole world glad?
But Billy gazed dully at the treasure with sinking heart and murmured: "You danged old humbug, you!" Croaker was surprised, indignant, hurt. He reached down and struck one of the shiniest of the bottles with his beak but even the happy tinkle that ensued failed to rouse enthusiasm in his master.
"O Croaker," groaned Billy, "why won't you find the gold fer me?" Croaker returned his master's look of reproach with beady, insolent eyes. "Cawrara-cawrara-cawrara," he murmured, backing from the pile, which meant, "Why don't you carry one of these beautiful shiny things home for me? Isn't that what I brought you here to do?"
Then, his master still remaining blind to the wealth of treasure disclosed to him, Croaker spread his wings and sailed away over the pine-tops. Billy, despair in his heart, followed. All fear of the supernatural was gone from him now, crowded out by bitter disappointment at his failure to find the hidden gold. He passed close beside the haunted house without so much as a thought of the ghost of the man who had owned it and on through the silent pines and shadowy, grave-yard silence.
Then, just as he drew near to the edge of the grove, he caught his breath in terror and the cold sweat leaped out on his fear-blanched face. Drifting directly toward him white as driven snow, came the ghost. It was bearing straight down upon him! His knees grew weak, refused to hold him, and he sagged weakly against a tree. He closed his eyes and waited for the end.
Billy had heard that when one comes face to face with death the misdeeds of the life about to go out crowd into one brief second of darting reality before one. He had never quite believed it but he believed it now. If only he might have his misspent life to live over again! Never again would he steal Deacon Ringold's melons or swap broken-backed, broken-bladed jack-knives for good ones with the Sand-sharks, nor frighten his brother Anson with tales of witches and goblins. But that chance was not for him. It was, perhaps, natural that his last earthly thought would be of her. Her sweet face shone through the choking mists—her trembling lips w............
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