E-text prepared by Al Haines
RIVAL PITCHERS OF OAKDALE
Author of "Ben Stone at Oakdale," "Boys of Oakdale Academy," Etc.
With Four Original Illustrations by Elizabeth Colborne
[Frontispiece: PHIL SENDS THE FIRST BALL.]
New York Hurst & Company Publishers
Copyright, 1911, by Hurst & Company
I. THE BOY WHO WANTED TO PITCH II. BASEBALL PRACTICE III. TWO OF A KIND IV. LEN ROBERTS OF BARVILLE V. HOOKER'S MOTORCYCLE VI. A DEAD SURE THING VII. RACKLIFF FISHES FOR SUCKERS VIII. READY FOR THE GAME IX. THE FIRST INNING X. THE CRUCIAL MOMENT XI. A CHANGE OF PITCHERS XII. WON IN THE NINTH XIII. RACKLIFF'S TREACHERY XIV. JEALOUSY XV. PLAIN TALK FROM ELIOT XVI. DREAD XVII. THE BOY ON THE BENCH XVIII. A LOST OPPORTUNITY XIX. POISON SPLEEN XX. FELLOWS WHO MADE MISTAKES XXI. A PERSISTENT RASCAL XXII. SELF-RESTRAINT OR COWARDICE XXIII. HOOKER BREAKS WITH RACKLIFF XXIV. ONCE MORE XXV. THE WYNDHAM PITCHER XXVI. THE PLUNGE FROM THE BRIDGE XXVII. A REBELLIOUS CONSCIENCE XXVIII. WHEN THE SIGNALS WERE CHANGED XXIX. PHIL GETS HIS EYES OPEN XXX. THE GREATEST VICTORY
Phil sends the first ball . . . . . . . . . . . . Frontispiece
Ere the horsehide was brought down between Rod's shoulder-blades, his hand had found the plate
"Several prominent members of the great Oakdale baseball team, I observe," said Rackliff
The local crowd "rooted" hard
RIVAL PITCHERS OF OAKDALE
THE BOY WHO WANTED TO PITCH.
During the noon intermission of a sunny April day a small group of boys assembled near the steps of Oakdale Academy to talk baseball; for the opening of the season was at hand, and the germ of the game had already begun to make itself felt in their blood. Roger Eliot, the grave, reliable, steady-headed captain of the nine, who had scored such a pronounced success as captain of the eleven the previous autumn, was the central figure of that gathering. Chipper Cooper, Ben Stone, Sleuth Piper, Chub Tuttle, Sile Crane and Roy Hooker formed the remainder of the assemblage.
"The field will be good and dry to-night, fellows," said Roger, "and we ought to get in some much-needed practice for that game with Barville. I want every fellow to come out, sure."
"Ho!" gurgled Chub Tuttle, cracking a peanut and dexterously nipping the double kernel into his mouth. "We'll be there, though I don't believe we need much practice to beat that Barville bunch. We ate 'em up last year."
"We!" said Sleuth Piper reprovingly. "If my memory serves me, you warmed the bench in both those games."
"That wasn't my fault," retorted Tuttle cheerfully. "I was ready and prepared to play. I was on hand to step in as a pinch hitter, or to fill any sort of a gap at a moment's notice."
"A pinch hitter!" whooped little Chipper Cooper. "Now, you would have cut a lot of ice as a pindi hitter, wouldn't you? You never made a hit in a game in all your life, Chub, and you know you were subbing simply because Roy got on his ear and wouldn't play. We had to have some one for a spare man."
"I would have played," cut in Hooker sharply, somewhat resentfully, "if I'd been given a square deal. I wanted a chance to try my hand at some of the pitching; but, after that first game, Ames, the biggest mule who ever captained a team, wouldn't give me another show. I wasn't going to play right field or sit around on the bench as a spare man."
Hooker had a thin, sharp face, with eyes set a trifle too close together, and an undershot jaw, which gave him a somewhat pugnacious appearance. He was a chap who thought very well indeed of himself and his accomplishments, and held a somewhat slighting estimation of others. In connection with baseball, he had always entertained an overweening ambition to become a pitcher, although little qualified for such a position, either by temperament or acquired skill. True, he could throw the curves, and had some speed, but at his best he could not find the plate more than once out of six times, and, when disturbed or rattled, he was even worse. Like many another fellow, he erroneously believed that the ability to throw a curved ball was a pitcher's chief accomplishment.
"It was lucky Springer developed so well as a twirler last year," observed Eliot.
"Lucky!" sneered Hooker. "Why, I don't recollect that he did anything worth bragging about. He lost both those games against Wyndham."
"We had to depend on him alone," said Roger; "and he was doing too much pitching. It's a wonder he didn't ruin his arm."
"You've got to have some one beside Springer this year, that's sure," said Hooker. "He can't pitch much more than half the games scheduled."
"Phil's tryin' to coach Rod Grant to pitch," put in Sile Crane. "I see them at it last night, out behind Springer's barn."
Roy Hooker laughed disdainfully. "Oh, that's amusing!" he cried. "That Texan has never had any experience, but, just because he and Phil have become chummy, Springer's going to make a pitcher out of him. He'll never succeed in a thousand years."
"Here they come now," said Ben Stone, as two boys turned in at the gate of the yard; "and Phil has got the catching mitt with him. I'll bet they've been practicing this noon."
"Jinks! but they're getting thick, them two," chuckled Chub Tuttle.
"As thick as merlasses in Jinuary," drawled Sile Crane whimsically.
"Being thick as molasses, they're naturally sweet on each other," chirped Cooper.
"Hi! Hi!" cried Tuttle. "There you go! Have a peanut for that."
"No, nut for me; I shell nut take it," declined Chipper.
"It's a real case of Damon and Pythias," remarked Stone, watching the two lads coming up the walk.
"Or David and Jonathan," said Eliot.
Phil Springer, the taller of the pair, with light hair, blue eyes, and long arms, looked at a distance the better qualified to toe the slab in a baseball game; but Rodney Grant was a natural athlete, whose early life on his father's Texas ranch had given him abounding health, strength, vitality, and developed in him qualities of resourcefulness and determination. Grant had come to Oakdale late the previous autumn, and was living with his aunt, an odd, seclusive spinster, by the name of Priscilla Kent.
Two girls, sauntering down the path with their arms about each other, met the approaching boys, and paused a moment to chat with them.
"Phil's sister is struck on our gay cowboy," observed Cooper, grinning.
"I rather guess Lela Barker is some smit on him, too," put in Sile Crane. "That's sorter natteral, seein' as how he rescued her from drowndin' when she was carried over the dam on a big ice-cake in the Jinuary freshet. That sartainly made him the hero of Oakdale, and us fellers who'd been sayin' he was a fake had to pull in our horns."
"The real hero of that occasion," declared Hooker maliciously, "was a certain cheap chap by the name of Bunk Lander, who plunged into the rapids below the dam, with a rope tied round his waist, and saved them both."
"I wouldn't sneer about Lander, if I were you, Roy," said Eliot in grave reproof. "I wouldn't call him cheap, for he's shown himself to be a pretty decent fellow; and Stickney, whose store he once pilfered, has given him a job on his new delivery wagon. There's evidently more manhood and decency in Lander than any of us ever dreamed—except Grant, who took up with him at the very beginning."
"And a fine pair people around here thought they were," flung back Hooker exasperatedly. "Why, even you, yourself, didn't have much of anything to say for Rod Grant at one time."
"I was mistaken in my estimation of him," confessed Roger unhesitatingly. "I believe Stone was about the only person who really sized Grant up right."
"And now, since he's become popular, this hero from Texas chooses Springer for his chum instead of Stone," said Roy.
"He has a right to choose whoever he pleases," said Ben, flushing a trifle. "We are still good friends. If he happens to find Springer more congenial than I, as a chum, I'm not going to show any spleen about it."
"It's my opinion," persisted Hooker, "that he has an object in his friendliness with Phil Springer. He's got the idea into his head that he can pitch, and he's using Phil to learn what he can. Well, we'll see how much he does at it—we'll see."
The girls having passed on, the two boys now approached the group near the steps. Springer was beaming as he came up.
"Say, Captain Eliot," he cried, "the old broncho bub-buster has got onto the drop. He threw it first-rate to-day noon. I'll make a change pitcher out of him yet."
"Oh, I'm destined to become another Mathewson, I opine," said Rodney Grant laughingly; "but if I do turn out to be a phenom, I'll owe it to my mentor, Mr. Philip Springer."
"The team is coming out for practice tonight," said Eliot, "and we'll give you a chance to pitch for the batters. We've got to work up a little teamwork before that game Saturday."
The second bell clanged, and, still talking baseball, the boys moved slowly and reluctantly toward the cool, dark doorway of the academy. Roy Hooker lingered behind, a pouting, dissatisfied expression upon his face.
"So they're bound to crowd me out again, are they?" he muttered. "Well, we'll see what comes of it. If I get a chance, I'll cook that cowboy for butting in."
With the close of the afternoon session, many of the boys, palpitantly eager to get out onto the field, went racing and shouting, down through the yard and across the gymnasium, where their baseball suits were kept. Eliot followed more sedately, yet with quickened step, for he was not less eager than his more exuberant teammates. Berlin Barker, slender, cold, and sometimes disposed to be haughty and overbearing, joined him on his way.
"We'll soon be at it again," said Barker. "The season opens Saturday, and I have a feeling it's going to be a hot one. It wouldn't surprise me if we had to play a stiff game in order to take a fall out of Barville. You know, they developed a strong pitcher in that man Sanger, the last of the season. Why, he actually held Wyndham down to three hits in that last game, and Barville would have won only for the blow-up in the eighth inning."
Roger nodded. "Lee Sanger certainly did good work for Barville after he hit his pace; but Springer ought to be in good shape for the opening, not having been compelled to pitch his wing stiff, the way he did last year."
"Confidentially, Roger," said Berlin, "I've never regarded Springer as anything great. I wouldn't say this to any one else, for we are good friends; but I fancy you know his weak points. He's not a stayer; he never was, and he never will be. With the game coming his way, he's pretty good—especially so, as long as he can keep the bases clean; but one or two hits at a critical moment puts him up in the air, and he's liable to lose his head. Only for the way you steady him down behind the pan, he'd never show up half as well as he does."
Now, this was a truth which no one knew better than Eliot himself, although he had never whispered it to a living soul. Springer owed his success mainly to the heady work, good back-stopping, clever coaching and steadying influence of Eliot, who did nearly all the thinking for Phil while the latter was on the slab. This, however, is often the case with many pitchers who are more than passably successful; to the outsider, to the watcher from the stand or the bleachers, the pitcher frequently seems to be the man who is pitting his brains and skill against the brains and skill of the opposing batters and delivering the goods, when the actual fact remains that it is the man at the "receiving end" who is doing nine-tenths of the thinking, and without whose discernment, sagacity, skill and directing ability, the twirler would make a pitiful show of himself. There are pitchers who recognize this fact and have the generosity to acknowledge it; but in most cases, especially with youngsters, no matter how much he may owe to the catcher, the slab-man takes all the credit, and fancies he deserves it.
"Oh, Springer's all right," declared Roger loyally; "but, of course, he needs some one to do part of the work, so that he won't use himself up, and I have hopes that he'll succeed in coaching Grant into a good second string man. He's enthusiastic, you know; says Grant is coming."
"Queer how chummy those fellows have become," laughed Barker shortly. "I don't know whether Rod Grant can make a pitcher of himself or not, but I was thinking that Hooker might pan out fairly well if only Phil would take the same interest and pains with him as he's taking with Rod."
"Perhaps so," said the captain of the nine; "but I have my doubts. Roy is too egotistical to listen to advice and coaching, and he entertains the mistaken idea that curves and speed are all a pitcher needs. He hasn't any control."
"But he might acquire it."
"He might, if he only had the patience to try for it and work hard, but you know he's no worker."
They had reached the gymnasium, and the discussion was dropped as they entered and joined the boys in the dressing room, who were hurriedly getting into their baseball togs. Hooker was there with the others, for he had a suit of his own, which was one of the best of the discarded uniforms given up at the opening of the previous season when the team had purchased new suits. There was a great deal of joshing and laughter, in which Roy took no part; for he was a fellow who found little amusement in the usual babble and jests of his schoolmates, and nothing aroused his resentment quicker than to be made the butt of a harmless joke. He had once choked Cooper purple in the face in retaliation for a jest put upon him by the audacious, rattle-brained little chap; but later Chipper had accepted Roy's apologies and protestations of regret, practically forgetting the unpleasant incident, which, however, Roy never did.
"Ah-ha!" cried Sile Crane, bringing forth and flourishing a long, burnt, battered bat. "Here's Old Buster, the sack cleaner. Haowdy do, my friend? I'm sartainly glad to shake ye again."
"Up to date," said Cooper, tying his shoes, "I've never seen you do any great shakes with Old Buster."
"Oh, ain't ye?" snapped Sile resentfully. "Mebbe yeou've forgot that three-sacker I got with this club in the Clearport game."
"Um-mum," mumbled Chipper. "Now you mention it, I do have a faint recollection of that marvelous accident. You were trying to dodge the ball, weren't you, Sile? You just shut your blinkers and ducked, and Pitkins' inshoot carromed off the bat over into right field and got lost in the grass. If we all hadn't yelled for you to run, you'd be standing there now, wondering what had happened."
"Yeou're another," flung back Crane. "I made a clean three-sacker, and yeou know it."
"Well, anyhow, you got anchored on third and failed to come home when I bunted on a signal for the squeeze. The Clearporters had barrels of fun with you over that. I remember Barney Carney asking you if you'd brought your bed."
"Oh, rats!" rasped Crane, striding toward the open gym door and carrying his pet bat. "Some parts of your memory ought to be amputated."
"What a cutting thing to say!" grinned Cooper, rising to follow.
The field, surrounded by a high board fence, was located near the gymnasium, and in a few minutes all the boys were on it and ready for business. Announcing that they would begin with a little plain fielding practice, Eliot assigned them to their positions.
"Do you care to go into right, Roy?" he asked, turning to Hooker as the last one.
"Not I," was the instant answer. "That's not my position. I'm no outfielder. Right field, indeed!"
"Oh, very well," said Roger. "Tuttle, go ahead out."
"Sure," said Chub agreeably, waddling promptly away to fill the position assigned him.
"Springer will bat to the outfield and Grant to the in," directed the captain. "After we warm up a little, we'll try some regular batting and base running, using the old system of signals."
Hooker, who had a ball of his own, turned away, and found Fred Sage, whose sole interest in the line of sports lay in football, and who, therefore, had taken no part in baseball after making a decided failure on one occasion when, the team being short, he had allowed himself to be coaxed into a uniform.
"There's an extra mitt on the bench, Fred," said Roy. "If you'll catch me, I'll work a few kinks out of my arm."
"Can't you find somebody else?" asked Sage reluctantly. "I came out to look on."
"Oh, come ahead," urged Hooker. "Get your blood to circulating. Who would ever think you were the quarter back of the great Oakdale eleven? Here's the mitt, take it."
"Come over by the fence," requested Fred. "I'll let that do most of the backstopping."
Over by the fence they went, and Hooker began limbering up, calling the curves he would use before throwing them. He had them all; but, as usual, he was wild as a hawk, and Sage would have been forced to do some tall jumping and reaching had he attempted to catch the ball more than half the time.
"You've got some great benders, Roy, if you could ever put them over," commented Fred.
"I can put them over when I want to," was the retort. "It's only a chump pitcher who keeps the ball over the pan all the time."
Satisfied after a time, he decided to stop, not a little to the relief and satisfaction of Sage. Eliot was just announcing that the team would begin regular batting and base-running practice, and immediately Roy asked the privilege of pitching.
"All right," agreed Roger, "but remember this is to be batting practice, and not a work-out for pitchers. Start it off, Springer, and run out your hit. You'll follow him. Grant. Come in from the field, Stone and Tuttle. Let some of the youngsters chase the balls out there. We've got to have four batters working."
Chub and Ben came trotting in as Springer took his place at the plate. The captain requested two younger boys to back him up and return the balls he chose to let pass, and then Hooker toed the slab, resolved to show these fellows what he could do. He put all his speed into the first ball pitched, a sharp shoot, which caught Springer on the hip, in spite of Phil's effort to dodge it.
"Say, what are you tut-trying to do?" spluttered the batter, as he hobbled in a circle around the plate.
"That one slipped," said Hooker. "I got more of a twist on it than I intended."
Phil picked up the bat, which he had dropped, and resumed his position. Three times Roy pitched wildly, and then when he finally got the ball over, Springer met it for a clean single, and trotted to first.
"Now play the game, fellows," called Eliot, from behind the pan.
Hooker's small eyes glittered as Rodney Grant stepped to the plate. Like a flash he pitched, again using an in-shoot.
Grant stepped back, held his bat loosely and bunted. As bat and ball met, the Texan's fingers seemed to release the club, and it fell to the ground almost as soon as the ball. Like a jack-rabbit he was off, shooting down the line toward first, while Springer, who had known by the signal just what was coming, romped easily to second.
Hooker had not intended for Grant to bunt that ball, having tried to send it high and close; and now in his haste to secure the sphere, he stumbled over it, and ere he could recover and throw, the speedy boy from the Lone Star State was so near first that Eliot shouted, "Hold it!"
His face flushed, his under jaw outshot a bit further than usual, Roy returned to the box, ignoring Chipper Cooper, who was cackling with apparent great delight.
Tuttle waddled toward the pan, bat in hand.
"I'll strike him out easy enough," thought Roy. Instead of that, he pitched four wide ones, all of which were declared balls by Sage, who had been requested to umpire; and Chub jogged to first, complaining that Hooker had been afraid to let him hit.
Then came Stone, who let a wide one pass, but reached a bit for the next, caught it about six inches from the end of his bat, and laced it fairly over the centerfield fence, a feat rarely performed on those grounds.
"My arm isn't in shape yet," said Hooker, trying to remain deaf to the laughter of the boys, as the runners trotted over the sacks and came home. "I won't pitch any more to-day, Eliot."
TWO OF A KIND.
Sitting alone on the bleachers, Roy Hooker sourly watched the continuation of practice. He saw Springer take a turn at pitching, to be followed finally by Rodney Grant, who laughingly warned the boys that he intended to strike them all out.
Rodney Grant was a somewhat peculiar character, who, coming unannounced to Oakdale, had at first been greatly misunderstood by the boys there, not a few of whom had fancied him an impostor and a fake Texan, mainly because of his quiet manners and conventional appearance; for these unsophisticated New England lads had been led, through the reading of a certain brand of Western literature, to believe that all Texans, and especially those who dwelt upon ranches, must be of the "wild and woolly" variety. Perceiving this at last, Rod had proceeded to amuse himself not a little by assuming a false air of bravado, and spinning some highly preposterous yarns of his hair-lifting adventures upon the plains; a course which, however, adopted too late to be effective, simply confirmed the doubters—who could not realize that they were being joshed—in their belief that the fellow was an out-and-out fraud.
Adding to Grant's unpopularity, and the growing disdain in which he was held, although plainly a strong, healthy, athletic chap, he not only refused to come out for football, but displayed an aversion for violent physical contention of any sort, especially fighting; which caused him to be branded as a coward. But the time came when, unable longer to endure the insults heaped upon him, the restraint of the young Texan snapped like a bowstring, and the boys of Oakdale found that a sleeping lion had suddenly awakened. Then it came to be known that Grant had inherited a most unfortunate family failing, a terrible temper, which, when uncontrolled, was liable to lead him into extreme acts of violence; and it was this temper he feared, instead of the fellows he had shunned whenever they sought to provoke him. Even now, although baseball was a gentle game in comparison with football, he was not absolutely sure he could always deport himself as a gentleman and a sportsman while playing it.
When the boys of the academy and the citizens of the town had joined in praise of Grant's courageous efforts in the work of rescuing Lela Barker from drowning, Hooker, who never had words of eulogy for anyone save himself, remained silent. Not that he had not come, like others, suddenly to regard the young Texan with respect; but for one of his envious nature respect does not always mean liking, no throb of which was awakened in his bosom. Indeed, he secretly disliked Rodney Grant more than ever, and, now that Springer had taken Grant in hand to make a pitcher of him, Roy's spleen was embittering his very soul.
Elbows on his knees, projecting chin on his clenched fists, he sullenly watched Rod pitch for the first time to batters. Several times he made in his throat a faint sound like a muttered growl of satisfaction, as he saw those batters hitting the ball to all parts of the field, and finally he triumphantly whispered:
"Well, I don't see that he's doing anything. They're pounding him all over the lot."
But, at the suggestion of Eliot, Rodney Grant was simply putting the ball over, now and then using speed, of which he apparently had enough, and occasionally mixing in a curve. Behind the pan Eliot would hold up his big mitt first on one corner then the other, now high, now low, and almost invariably the ball came whistling straight into the pocket of that mitt, which caused Roger to nod his head and brought to his face a faint touch of that rare smile seldom seen there.
"Good control, Rod, old man," he praised. "That's one of the most essential qualities a pitcher can have."
"Bah!" muttered the envious lad on the bleachers. "What's that amount to, if a fellow hasn't the curves at his command?"
Presently, with Barker stepping out to hit, Eliot called Grant, met him ten feet in front of the plate, and they exchanged a few words in low tones, after which Roger returned to his position and gave the regular finger signals that he would use in a game.
Barker slashed at a high one close across his shoulders and missed. He let two wide ones pass, and fouled when a bender cut a corner.
"Two strikes!" cried Sage, who was still umpiring. "Look out or he'll strike you out, Berlin."
With a faint smile, the batter shrugged his shoulders, and then he did his best to meet the next pitched ball, which seemed to be the kind he especially relished. To his surprise, he missed it widely, for the ball took a sharp drop at the proper moment to deceive him.
"You're out," laughed Sage. "He did get you."
"He did for a fact," agreed Berlin. "That was a dandy drop, Grant. I wasn't looking for it."
Rodney put the next one straight over, and Berlin hit to Cooper at short.
Jack Nelson followed, and he was likewise surprised to be struck out, Grant using his drop twice in the performance.
"Hi there, you!" shouted Nelson. "What did you put on the old ball, anyhow? Pitch? Well, I wouldn't be surprised if you could, some."
"You bet he will," called Phil Springer delightedly. "I'll have him delivering the goods before the season is half over."
"Bah!" again muttered Hooker. "You're a fool, Springer."
Later he saw Eliot and Barker talking together not far from the bench, and near them stood Herbert Rackliff, a city boy who had entered Oakdale Academy at the opening of the spring term.
Rackliff was a chap whose clothes were the envy of almost every lad in town, being tailor-made, of the latest cut and the finest fabric. His ties and his socks, a generous portion of the latter displayed by the up-rolled bottoms of his trousers, were always of a vivid hue and usually of silk. His highly-polished russet shoes were scarcely browner than the tips of two fingers of his right hand, which outside of school hours were constantly dallying with a cigarette. He had rings and scarf pins, and a gold watch with a handsome seal fob. His face was pale and a trifle hollow-cheeked, his chest flat, and his muscles, lacking exercise, sadly undeveloped. For Rackliff took no part in outdoor sports of any sort, protesting that too much exertion gave him palpitation of the heart.
Hooker was still sitting hunched on the bleachers, when Rackliff, having lighted a fresh cigarette, came sauntering languidly toward him.
"Hello, Roy, old sport," saluted the city youth. "You look lonesome."
"I'm not," retorted Hooker shortly.
"Well, you're not practicing, and you must be tired of watching the animals perform. I came over to kill a little time, but it's grown monotonous for me, and I'm going to beat it."
"I think I'll get out myself," said Hooker, descending from the bleachers.
Rackliff accompanied him to the gymnasium, where Roy hastened to strip off his baseball togs and get into his regular clothes.
"What made you quit pitching so soon?" questioned the city lad, lingering near. "You don't mind being hit a little in batting practice, do you?"
"That wasn't it," fibbed Hooker. "Didn't you hear those chumps cackle with glee? That's what made me sore. Then what's the use for me to try to pitch if Eliot isn't going to give me any sort of a show?"
"No use at all," said Rackliff cheerfully. "I've noticed that on all these athletic teams there's more or less partiality shown."
"That's it," cried Roy savagely. "It's partiality. Eliot doesn't like me, and he isn't going to let me do any pitching. Wants to bury me out in right garden, the rottenest position on the team. A fellow never has much of any chance out there."
"Oh, probably he knew you wouldn't accept the position, anyhow," said Herbert. "He had to make a bluff at giving you something."
"I'll show him he can't impose on me."
"They're going to boost this individual from the alfalfa regions, it seems. He's surely become the real warm baby around here. I heard Barker confidentially admitting to your captain——"
"Not my captain," objected Roy.
"I heard Barker confidentially admitting to Eliot," pursued Rackliff serenely, "that he was greatly surprised in the showing Grant had made and was not at all sure but the fellow would eventually become a better pitcher than Springer."
"Say, that would make Springer feel good, the blooming chump!" cried Roy, rising to his feet. "He's coaching Grant, so the cowboy can act as second pitcher and help him out; but, if he realized he might be training a fellow to push him out of his place as the star twirler of the team, I guess he'd quit in a hurry."
"Very likely he might," nodded Herbert. "No chap with real sense is going to be dunce enough to teach some one to rise above him."
"That will make trouble between them yet, see if it doesn't," prophesied Hooker in sudden satisfaction. "They're mighty thick now, but there'll be an end to that if Phil Springer ever realizes what may happen."
"Somebody might carelessly drop a hint to him," smiled Rackliff.
Suddenly Roy's small, keen eyes were fixed inquiringly on his companion.
"I don't see why you take so much interest," he wondered. "You must have a reason."
Herbert shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps so," he admitted. "Are you ready? Let's get a move on before the bunch comes over."
They left the gymnasium, and walked down the street together. Hooker had conceived a sudden, singular interest in Rackliff.
"I always wondered how you happened to come to school here at Oakdale," he confessed.
"Have a cigarette," invited Herbert, extending an open, gold-mounted morocco case.
"Don't like 'em, thank you," declined Roy.
The other boy lighted a fresh one from the stub of the last.
"So you've been speculating as to the cause of my choosing this serene, rural seat of knowledge, have you? Well, I'll own up that it wasn't my choice. I'm not very eager about burying myself alive, and if ever there was a cemetery, it's the town of Oakdale. My pater was the guilty party."
"Oh, your father sent you here?"
"Correct. I would have chosen Wyndham, but Newbert's old man sent him down there, and my governor thought we should be kept apart in future."
"Newbert? Who's Newbert?"
"You'll hear from him later, I fancy. He's a chap who can really pitch baseball. He's my partner in crime."
"My chum. We hit it off together pretty well for the last year or so; for Dade—that's his name—is a corker. Never mind the details, and the facts concerning the precise nature of our little difficulty wouldn't interest you; but we got into a high old scrape, and were both expelled from school. When I found Dade's old man was going to send him to Wyndham, I put it up to my sire to let me go there also, but he got wise and chose this corner of the map for mine. You know, he came from here originally."
"I didn't know it."
"Yes, moved out of this tomb nearly thirty years ago. But he knew what it was like, and I presume he fancied I'd be good and safe down here, where there's absolutely nothing doing. Hence, here I am. Pity my woes."
"Oh, well, perhaps you might stir up something around here, if you tried hard enough," said Hooker. "If you took an interest in baseball——"
"What good would that do me, with your dearly-beloved friend, Roger Eliot, choosing his favorites for the team? Besides, I don't think I'd care to play if I could with a bunch that had a cow-puncher for a slab artist."
"You've got a grudge against Grant. You don't like him."
"Great discernment," laughed Rackliff, with a hollow cough that sent little puffs of smoke belching from his lips. "Confidentially, I'll own up that I'm not stuck on him."
"I'm with you. I don't go around blowing about it, but I haven't any use for that specimen from the cow country."
"He seems to be very popular, especially with the girls," murmured Rackliff. "Now there's only one girl in this town that strikes me as something outside the milkmaid class. Lela Barker is it—in italics. Still, I'm going to admit that I don't think her taste and discernment is all it should be. Of course, she's naturally grateful to Grant for that bath he took on her account, but that's no reason why she should hand me the frosty."
"Oh, I begin to see," muttered Hooker, grinning a bit for the first time. "Jealous."
"Don't make me laugh; I might crack my face. Jealous of a cattle puncher! Excuse me! All the same, it's a bit provoking to see people slobbering over him, especially the girls, the same as if he's made of the stuff found in heroes of fiction."
"I think," said Hooker, "there's a bond of sympathy between us."
LEN ROBERTS OF BARVILLE.
In front of the post office stood a boy with a faded pea-green cap, hung rakishly over one ear. He had a crooked nose, which looked as if some one had given it a violent twist to one side, and, perceiving Hooker approaching, he smiled a crooked smile, that gave his features the odd appearance of struggling desperately to pull his proboscis back into place.
"Hello!" muttered Roy in surprise. "As I live, there's Len Roberts, of Barville! What's he doing here?"
"Hi, there, Hooky!" called Roberts from the right-hand corner of his mouth. "How they coming? Ain't seen you since the last time. Any fun 'round this metropolitan burg?"
"Howdy, Len," answered Roy. "What brought you over here, anyhow?"
"The old man's nag and buggy. He came over to buy a horse from Abe Tuttle, and I asked him to fetch me along to lead or ride the critter back. He'n Tuttle are dickering now. Thought perhaps I might see somebody I knew if I hung 'round here."
"My friend, Herbert Rackliff, from Boston," said Hooker, introducing his companion. "That hub of the universe and seat of knowledge became too slow for him, so he migrated down here to Oakdale to acquire learning at our academic institution."
"Glad to meet you," said Roberts, still speaking out of one side of his mouth, in a way that somehow gave the impression that he did not wish the other side of his face to know what he was saying. "From Boston—and come to attend school in Oakdale. Jingoes!"
Rackliff smiled wryly, as his hand was given a squeeze by the wearer of the green cap. "Don't wonder you're surprised," he murmured. "Awful, isn't it? But then, I'm not to blame. Just been explaining to Roy, that my governor is responsible for the fearful crime."
"Sent you down here, did he? Well, what did you do to lead him to perpetrate such an outrage?"
"Got caught having a little fun, that's all. Expelled."
"Some fathers never can seem to understand that boys must have amusement. How's baseball coming, Hooky?"
"Oh, after the same old style," growled Hooker. "Roger Eliot is running the whole shooting match."
"He seems to be the high mogul in this town," chuckled Roberts.
"He makes me sick!" snapped Roy. "I don't care whether I play baseball or not, but I'd like to see Oakdale have a captain who'd give every fellow a square and fair show."
"Hasn't Eliot given you a square deal?"
"Not by a long shot. The bunch is practicing on the field now. He wanted to pack me away into right garden, but I never was built to be a nonentity in the outfield."
"I thought likely perhaps you'd do part of the pitching this year. Seems to me they must need you."
"Oh, they'll need somebody, all right; but Springer's trying to coach up our cattle puncher, Grant, to do part of the twirling. You don't know Grant. He's a new man; came in last fall. He's from Texas."
"Can he pitch?"
"Pitch! Just about as much as an old woman."
"Well, I don't mind telling you that Oakdale is certainly going to need a good man on the slab when she runs up against Barville this year. Needn't think you'll have the same sort of a snap you had last season. Lucky for you Lee Sanger hadn't developed when you played us. Gee! but he did come toward the end of the season. Look how he held Wyndham down; and he'd won that game, too, with proper support. He'll be better this year."
"I hope Barville beats the everlasting stuffing out of Oakdale."
"Do you really?" chuckled Roberts. "How's your friend feel about it? Does he play?"
"Nit," said Rackliff. "Draw poker is about the only kind of a game I ever take a hand in."
"Oh, Herbert knows they've given me a rotten deal," said Hooker quickly. "He's got his opinion about it. Honestly and truly, we'd both like to see Barville win."
"If that is the case," whispered Roberts, with a secretively friendly and confidential air, "you're just about dead sure to have your desire gratified. We'll have the finest high school battery ever seen in these parts. Got a new catcher, you know."
"No. I didn't know."
"Yep. He's a corker. Knows the game from A to Z, and he's coaching Sanger. You should see them work together. By the way, he comes from a town near Boston. Part of the city, isn't it—Roxbury? He knows more baseball than any fellow in these parts."
"What's his name?" asked Rackliff, lighting a fresh cigarette.
"What?" exclaimed Herbert, nearly dropping his cigarette. "Not Newt Copley?"
"Great scott! Say, he is a catcher. He's the trickiest man who ever went behind a bat. I know, for I've seen him play. He knows me, too. Say, isn't it odd that I should have a chum pitching for Wyndham this year and an acquaintance catching for Barville?"
The face of Len Roberts wore a look of satisfaction.
"Of course, we haven't seen Cop in a real game yet, but he brought his credentials with him, and they were sufficient to satisfy everybody that he was the real thing. Glad to meet somebody who knows about him. With Sanger handing 'em up, and Cop doing the receiving, you can bet Barville is going to take a fall out of Oakdale."
"I'd like to bet on it," said Herbert, with a touch of eagerness; "but I don't suppose I could find anybody down around here with sporting blood enough to risk any real money on the game. Say, do me a favor; tell Newt Copley that Herbert Rackliff is here in this town. He'll remember the fellow they called 'the plunger,' and 'the dead-game sport.' Even if I don't play baseball, I've sometimes made a few easy dollars betting on the games."
"And you'd bet against Oakdale?"
"Sure thing, if I felt certain she would lose."
"I'm afraid," grinned Roberts, "that neither you nor Hooker is very loyal to his school."
"Loyal!" snarled Roy. "Why should we be?"
"When it comes to wagering money," observed Rackliff wisely, "the fellow who bets on sympathy or loyalty is a chump. I always back my judgment and try to use some common sense about it. I hope you don't think for a fleeting moment that I contemplate finishing my preparatory school education in this stagnant hole. Not for little Herbert. I'd get paresis here in less than a year. I'm pretty sure the governor simply chucked me down here for a term, as sort of a warning. I'll go back for good when the term's over."
"Well, now if you fellows really want to see Oakdale surprised, and enjoy the pleasure of witnessing Barville hand 'em a good trimming, perhaps you won't say anything about our new catcher."
"Not a word," promised Hooker.
"Not a whisper," assured Rackliff. "And perhaps I'll catch a sucker or two if I fish around for them. Really, the prospect is inviting, for it seems to promise a break in the deadly monotony."
"Here come some of the fellows now," said Hooker, as two or three boys were seen coming down Lake Street. "Practice is over. Let's sift along, Rack. I don't care to see them. So long, Len. Good luck to you."
"So long, fellows," said the boy from Barville, as they turned up Main Street. "You'll have a chance to be happy Saturday. Bet all you can on it, Rackliff, old fel."
Thus began the friendship between Roy Hooker and Herbert Rackliff. Henceforth they were seen together a great deal. They came out to watch the nine practice, but Hooker no longer wore his baseball suit, and he sat on the bleachers with Herbert, the two talking together in guarded tones. No one paid much attention to them, for most of the boys held very decided opinions, which were far from favorable, of a chap who would show the disposition Hooker had so plainly betrayed; and Rackliff had never revealed an inclination to seek popularity among his schoolmates.
Roy was the owner of a second-hand motorcycle, which his father had given him at Christmas time, a present that had filled him with keen delight and intense satisfaction, in the knowledge that it would cause him to be envied by less fortunate lads. It was necessary, however, to tinker a great deal over the machine to keep it in running order, and the joshing flung at him by the Oakdale lads whenever he had a breakdown had been anything but balm to his irritable nature.
"Confound the thing!" he cried, after fussing with it a long time one night, while Rackliff, his creased trousers carefully pulled up to prevent bagging at the knees, sat on a box near by, in the open door of the carriage house, smoking cigarettes. "I don't believe it's any good. The old man got soaked."
"It seems harder work to keep the thing going than to pump an ordinary bike," said Herbert, "and that's too strenuous for me—though I learned to ride one once."
"Oh, regular bicycles are back numbers now. I could have a ripping lot of fun if I could make this machine go. Never saw anything so contrary. Sometimes it starts off and behaves fine for a little while, and I think it's all right. Just when I get to thinking that, it kicks up and leaves me a mile or two away from home, and I have to push or pedal it back. That's what makes me sore. If I try to sneak in by some back way somebody is sure to see me and give me the ha-ha."
"Like automobiles," observed Herbert, after letting a little smoke drift through his nose, "they're all right when they go, and a perfect nuisance when they don't. Now look at yourself, Roy, old fellow. Your hands are covered with grease, and you've got a black streak across your nose, and you're all fretted up."
"Drat the old thing!" snarled Hooker, giving the rear tire a kick. "It's just simply contrary, that's all. There's only one person in town who knows anything about gas engines, and he's Urian Eliot's chauffeur. I suppose I could get him to tinker this contraption up if I only was chummy with Roger."
"Anyway," said Herbert, "I should think it would shake one up fearfully riding over these rough country roads. We have some roads around Boston."
"Oh, a fellow can pick his way along pretty well after our roads get settled. Of course, they're no macadamized boulevards. It's lots of sport, and one can get around almost anywhere he wants to go. As long as I'm not going to be on the baseball team, I might use it to run over to Barville or Wyndham or Clearport to see the games."
"So you're going to chase the games up, are you?" laughed Rackliff. "I thought perhaps you'd be so sore you'd keep away from them."
"What, and lose the chance of seeing Oakdale beaten? Why, I wouldn't miss that first game with Barville for anything."
"But you don't have to go out of this town to see that game. Give it to me straight, Roy, is that fellow Sanger really much of a pitcher? Of course, I know Roberts would blow about him, but what do you think?"
"He was green the first of last season, and with a poor catcher to hold him he didn't show up very strong; but it's a fact that Wyndham, the fastest team in these parts, only got three clean hits off him the last game he pitched."
"Well, he'll have a catcher that can hold him this year," declared the city lad. "Newt Copley is a bird. He can throw to bases, too; it's rank suicide for runners to try to steal on him. Then you should see him work a batter. Gets right under the man's club and talks to him in a low tone, telling him how rotten he is and all that, until he has the fellow swinging like a gate at every old thing that comes over. And the way he can touch a bat with his mitt and deflect it on the third strike without being detected by the umpire is wonderful. He's great for kicking up a rumpus in a game; but he enjoys it, for he'd rather fight than eat."
"He hadn't better try anything like that on Rod Grant."
"Oh, I don't know," murmured Rackliff. "Copley's a scrapper, and he can handle his dukes. He has science, and it's my opinion he'd eat your cowboy alive."
Hooker shook his head. "You never saw Grant when his blood was up. I have, and he's a perfect fury. They say his old man was a great fighter, and that he's been all shot and cut to pieces. I wouldn't buck up against the Texan for anything."
With which confession Hooker resumed his tinkering on the motorcycle. After a while, with the switch on, he bestrode the thing and started to pump it down the slight in-line toward the street.
Suddenly, to Roy's delight, the motor began to fire, and, with a shout of satisfaction, he turned up the street and disappeared from view.
In something like five minutes Rackliff, smoking his tenth cigarette since seating himself on the box, heard the repeated explosions of the motorcycle, and Roy, his face beaming with satisfaction, reappeared, came triumphantly up the rise and leaped off.
"She goes like a bird," he cried.
"What did you do to it?" asked Herbert.
"I wish I knew. I just tinkered with the wires a bit. That was the last thing I did, but I'd been at everything else I could think of, so I don't know what it was that sent her off. If she'll only keep going, I don't care, either. Never knew the thing to run better. Say, Herbert, it's fine. Don't you want to try it?"
"Oh, I don't believe I do. I'd break my neck."
"Paugh! 'Tain't no trick at all. I can show you how to start her and stop her, and, if you can ride an ordinary bicycle, you'll find it a cinch to ride this. Come on. Afraid?"
"Oh, no," said Rackliff, rising and snapping aside the butt of his cigarette, "but I should hate to get very far away and have it stop on me."
"You don't have to go very far; just try her through Middle Street, up Main, back along High, and down Willow, and here you are."
Herbert looked dubious, but finally, after his companion had chaffed him a while, he agreed to make the venture. Roy gave full and complete directions about the manipulation of the motorcycle, and Rackliff, a trifle pale, finally mounted it and started down the incline.
"Turn the handles from you," shouted Roy. "Give her a little gas. There she goes. Now you're off."
"Now I'm on," muttered Herbert, as the engine began popping away beneath him; "but I may be off directly."
Turning into the street, he barely escaped the gutter at the far side, and away he went, watched by Hooker, who had run out to the sidewalk. Remembering instructions, and following them faithfully, Rackliff speeded up the engine or slowed it down, as he desired, and soon his confidence rose. One of the street crossings gave him a bump that nearly threw him off, but he was prepared for the next, and took it easily. In a brief time he had covered the course laid out for him by his friend, and found himself back at Hooker's home, where he promptly shut off the gas, switched the spark, and, a little flushed, swung himself to the ground ere the machine fully stopped.
"Say, it is rather nifty," he beamed. "It's got ordinary hiking beaten to death. Don't know but I'd like to have one of the things myself. Never supposed I could ride one, but it isn't such a trick, after all."
"Of course, it isn't," agreed Hooker, "and I suppose after I get onto the knack of it I won't have any trouble keeping her running."
"If you don't mind, I think I'll practice on it a little now and then. Perhaps I might induce the governor to give me one, by way of atonement for his heartless treatment in sending me down here to school."
"Why, yes, you can practice up on mine," consented Roy slowly, a sudden troubled look coming to his face; "but I suppose if you got one it would be new and up to date, and make me feel ashamed of mine."
"Oh, come off," smiled Herbert soothingly. "If I had one we could pike around to the baseball games together, and we might be able to pick up a little easy money by betting on them—if we ever found anybody who had the nerve to bet with us. I kept myself supplied with pocket money in that fashion last year. Occasionally made a little something playing poker, but the games were always so small a fellow couldn't do much at them."
"Didn't you ever lose?"
"Well, not very often. I didn't bet to lose."
"I know, but how could you be sure of winning?"
Rackliff winked languidly and wisely. "As I told that chap from Barville, the fellow who bets on sympathy or loyalty is a chump. I always investigate matters pretty thoroughly, and then pick the side I believe has every prospect of winning. Sometimes it's possible to help one team or another along on the quiet. I'd like to know what Newt Copley thinks of the Barville nine. I'd depend on his judgment. I've got a tenner I'd like to set to work to double itself."
"You always have plenty of money," said Roy enviously. "I never had ten whole dollars at one time in my life."
"My poor, poverty-stricken comrade!" murmured Herbert, preparing to light a fresh cigarette. "I sympathize with you. Follow my lead, and you'll wear diamonds."
A DEAD SURE THING.
Thereafter Rackliff took great interest in Hooker's motorcycle—more interest than the languid, indifferent fellow had seemed to show over anything else except his cigarettes. Even one rather severe fall from the machine, which sadly soiled his elegant and immaculate clothes, did not deter him from continuing to practice upon it whenever it was not being used by its owner and he could find the opportunity. To the satisfaction of both lads, the machine behaved very well indeed, and Roy decided that, without knowing how he did it, he had fortunately succeeded in curing its "balkiness."
It was Roy, taking an early morning spin on the machine, who saw Phil Springer wearing the big catching mitt and coaching Rodney Grant to pitch in Springer's dooryard.
"You poor lobster!" muttered Hooker contemptuously, as he chugged past. "If Grant really should pan out to be the better man, you'd feel like kicking yourself. I'd like to tell you what I think of you."
That night after supper, as usual, Rackliff strolled over to Hooker's home, but he strolled with steps somewhat quickened by the prospect of taking a turn on his friend's motorcycle.
At first Roy was not to be found, and his mother said she did not know where he had gone. The motorcycle was standing in the carriage house, causing Rackliff to wonder a little.
"Queer," muttered Herbert, rubbing his chin with his cigarette-stained fingers. "When the old lady said he wasn't around I thought sure he must be off with this machine."
To his ears came the sound of a dull thump, repeated at quite regular intervals. At first he thought it must be the horse stamping in the near-by stable, but the regular repetition of that thumping sound convinced him that such could not be the case and led him to investigate. Within the stable he was surprised to hear the sound coming like a blow upon the back of the building, round which he finally sauntered.
There was Hooker, coat and cap off, sleeves rolled up, face flushed a little, throwing a baseball at the rear wall of the building, recovering it when it rebounded, taking his place at a fixed distance, and throwing again.
Unperceived, so intent was Hooker, Herbert stood and watched for several minutes. Finally he spoke up interrogatingly:
"What are you trying to do, anyhow, old man? What in the name of mystery do you mean by sneaking out here and trying to wallop your arm off all by your lonesome?"
At the sound of the city boy's voice Roy had given a start and turned, ball in hand. He frowned a bit, then followed it with a rather shame-faced grin, as he wiped the perspiration from his forehead with the back of his hand.
"Just amusing myself a little," he answered.
"Queer sort of amusement. Might satisfy a kid who couldn't find anything else to do. I thought likely you'd be using your motorcycle; and, everything considered, I didn't suppose you'd care a rap about fingering a baseball."
"If you could catch me," returned Roy, "I'd have you put on my glove and see if I couldn't get 'em over a piece of plank the size of the home plate; but you can't catch, and so I'm trying to see how often I can hit that white shingle yonder. I actually hit it twice in succession a few minutes ago."
"Huh!" grunted Herbert. "What's the good of that?"
"I'm trying to get control, you know. They say that's what I lack. Even Eliot has acknowledged that I might pitch some if I wasn't so wild."
Herbert burst into soft, half-mocking laughter. "'Hope springs eternal in the human breast'," he quoted. "Nevertheless, good, plain, common sense should teach you that you're wasting your time. You're not wanted as a pitcher, and so you won't get a chance to do any twirling."
"You never can tell what may happen," returned Roy. "I never thought Springer was so much, and I haven't any great confidence in Grant. What if they should both get theirs? Eliot might be forced to give me a show, and if that happens I'll deliver the goods——"
Rackliff snapped his yellow fingers. "You've got the baseball bug bad," he said. "It's a disease. I suppose it has to have its run with the fellows who become infected. All right, waste your time; but while you're doing it, if you don't mind, I'd like to take a spin on your motorcycle. There is some fun in that, I own up."
"Well, don't be gone long," said Roy. "I guess I'll get enough of this in ten or fifteen minutes more, and I want to ride some myself to-night."
Trundling out the machine, Rackliff heard the ball thudding again against the back of the stable.
Friday afternoon Herbert did not appear at school. Hooker looked for him in vain and wondered why he had remained away. Alone he watched the boys practice a while when school was over, Grant doing his full share of pitching to the batters. Despite prejudice and envy, Roy could see that Springer's pupil was gaining confidence and beginning to carry himself with the air of a real pitcher.
"But he hasn't had any experience," muttered the jealous and unfortunate lad. "Wait till he gets into a game and they begin to bump him. That temper of his will make him lose his head." Which was evidence enough that Roy little understood Rodney Grant, who invariably became all the more resolute and determined by opposition, and stood in no danger of giving way to his fiery temper, except when met by buffets of physical force in the form of personal violence.
Reaching home, Hooker went out behind the stable and plugged away at the white shingle until supper time, fancying he was gaining some skill in accuracy, although it seemed almost impossible to score a hit or come near it when he used a curve.
Supper over, he looked for Rackliff to appear. "He'll be around pretty soon, so I'll just take a short ride and come back."
In the carriage house he stopped, his undershot jaw drooping; for the motorcycle was missing from the stand on which it was always kept, when not in use. "What the dickens——" he cried, and stopped short.
After looking all around to make sure the machine was not there, he rushed into the house and questioned his mother.
"It must be there, Roy," she said. "I'm sure nobody has touched it. I would have heard them."
"But it isn't there," he shouted. "Somebody has stolen it." Then he caught his breath, struck by a sudden thought. "Has Herbert Rackliff been around here to-day?" he asked.
"I haven't seen him, but I hope you don't think your friend would take your motorcycle without——"
He did not wait to hear any more. Rushing out of the house, he had reached the sidewalk when, to his unspeakable relief, round the corner from Willow Street came Rackliff, somewhat dust-covered and perspiring, trundling the motorcycle. Hooker glared at him.
"What do you mean by taking my machine without asking?" he rasped. "Where have you been with it?"
"My dear old pal," said Herbert soothingly, "do give me time to get my breath, and then I'll seek to conciliate you with a full explanation. I've had to push this confounded thing for at least five miles, and I'm pretty near pegged out. It stopped on me on my way home."
"Five miles?" snapped Roy, taking the machine from the limp and weary city boy. "Where in blazes have you been with it?"
But not until he had seated himself to rest in the carriage house, and lighted a cigarette, did Rackliff offer any further explanation. Finally, with a little cough and a tired sigh, he smiled on the still frowning and outraged owner of the machine.
"You didn't see me around school this afternoon, did you?" he asked.
"No. I wondered where you were."
"I was out laying my pipes."
"Making sure that you and I could form a little pool and seek a few wagers on the game to-morrow, with the dead certainty of winning. I've been over to Barville to see Newt Copley."
"Oh!" muttered Hooker. "And you put my machine on the blink!"
"It simply quit on me, that's all. I didn't do a thing to it—on my word, I didn't. There's nothing broken, old man. I'm certain you'll be able to tinker it up again all right. You can bet your life I'd never made that trip if I'd dreamed it would be necessary for me to push the old thing so far. Still, I'm mighty glad I went. Say, Roy, Copley is dead sure Barville will have more than an even show with Oakdale to-morrow, and you know what I think of his judgment. Now, if you've got any money, or can raise any, just bet it on Barville and make a killing."
"But I wouldn't want to be seen betting against my own school team."
"Ho! ho!" laughed Herbert derisively. "Then let me have your cash, and I'll place it for you. I haven't any scruples."
"But you may be mistaken. Even Copley may be, for he hasn't seen Oakdale play."
"He says Sanger is a wiz. Look here, Roy, do you know Eliot's finger signals to the pitcher?"
"Uses the old finger system, doesn't he?"
"One finger held straight, a straight ball. Two fingers close together, an outcurve; spread apart, one on the inside corner. One finger crooked like a fish-hook, a drop."
"You've got 'em correct, but what's that got to do with——"
"Oh, I just wanted to know," chuckled Rackliff. "Get your loose change together and let me handle it. If I don't double it for you to-morrow I'll agree to stand any loss you may sustain. You won't be even taking a chance. What do you say?"
"Well, if you're as confident as that," answered Roy, "I'm certainly going to raise a little money somehow to bet on that game."
RACKLIFF FISHES FOR SUCKERS.
Saturday came, warm and balmy with springtime odors. Roy Hooker, standing at the street corner near his home, seemed to be listening to a robin calling joyously from the topmost branches of the elm that rose above his head; but, truth to tell, the boy's ears were deaf to the notes of the bird, and his eyes were being turned alternately along Middle Street or down Willow. He was waiting for some one, and presently that person appeared, leisurely approaching, with now and then a thin wisp of smoke drifting over his shoulder. It was Rackliff, dressed with his usual care, but looking, if possible, a little paler and more languid than ever.
"I thought it was about time for you to show up," said Roy a trifle fretfully. "You said you'd be around by nine; it's twenty minutes after by the clock in the Methodist steeple."
"It is said," returned Herbert, "that the early bird catches the worm; and, as we're all worms of the earth, I don't believe in taking any chances with the bird. Didn't sleep very well last night. Fancy that jaunt to Barville was too much for me; though, to tell the truth, I'm a rotten poor sleeper anyhow. I wake up at the slightest noise in the night, and, having some nerves of my own, usually get a case of heart palpitation, which is deucedly unpleasant. Then perhaps I won't go to sleep again for two hours or more. I envy any fellow who snoozes like a log." He concluded with a short, hollow laugh.
"The trouble with you is," said Roy, "that you smoke too much."
"Tell it to Johnson," scoffed Herbert. "I've always been that way; smoking doesn't have anything to do with it. Besides, if it did I couldn't leave off. I've got the habit for fair."
"I wouldn't like to say that; I'd hate to own up to it."
"Oh, it's nothing. Cigarettes never killed any one yet, old women and moralizers to the contrary, notwithstanding. Well, chum, how are you fixed? Did you make a raise so that you can bet a little cold cash on the great contest to-day? You said you thought you'd have some money this——"
"'Sh!" hissed Roy, glancing around apprehensively toward the house. "Don't talk about that here."
"Eh? Why not?"
"I don't want my folks to find out anything about it," whispered Hooker. "Come on, let's walk up the street."
At the corner above they turned into High Street, coming finally to the white Methodist church.
"Let's stroll around behind the church, where no one will see us," proposed Hooker.
"Like a pair of plotters on foul intentions bent," laughed Herbert. "To watch you manoeuvre, one might get the fancy that you were involved in some desperate and terrible piece of work."
"Now, look here, Herb," said Roy, facing his companion behind the church, "you're situated differently from me, and you can't seem to understand my position. You don't belong in Oakdale, and you don't care a rap what the fellows around here think of you or say about you."
"Not a rap," nodded Rackliff.
"That's just it. Now this is my home, and I've got to be careful about some things. I don't want to get everybody down on me."
"I haven't observed," said Rackliff unfeelingly, "that you're particularly popular with the fellows of this benighted burg."
"I'll make myself a blame sight more unpopular if they ever get onto it that I bet against my own school team. You can do it, for you say you don't expect to stay here more than one term, anyhow. Then if my folks should know, they'd raise the merry dickens."
"And that would break the monotony of a severely humdrum existence. I've had more than one stormy session with the head of my family. How much money did you scrape together?"
"I haven't counted it yet," answered Roy, thrusting his hand into his pocket and looking around, as if apprehensive that they were being watched. "I say, Herb, are you really dead sure that Barville will win this afternoon?"
Rackliff sighed. "As sure as one can be of anything in this old world. Hook, you've got cold feet."
"Well, I wouldn't want to lose this money. I can't afford to lose it. I can't lose it."
"You won't, old chap—you won't. I'm getting you in on this out of pure friendliness, nothing else; and you must remember what I agreed to do yesterday—if you lose, I'll stand for the loss."
"That's generous; that's all right. Perhaps you can't get any bets, anyhow. The fellows around here aren't given to betting real money on baseball." Roy produced a closely folded little wad of bills and some loose change. "Here's all I have," he went on. "I'm going to let you take it and bet it on Barville, if you can." There was a two dollar bill, two ones, and eighty-five cents in change.
"Fifteen cents more would make an even five," said Herbert. "Can't you dig that much up?"
"This is all I have," repeated Hooker, "every last red cent. I'll have to pay admission to the game, too, as long as I'm not on the nine. I must keep a quarter for that."
"And that leaves it forty cents shy of a fiver. Well, if necessary, I'll make that up. I'm going to risk ten of my own money."
"Risk it?" muttered Hooker, again troubled by qualms.
"Oh, you know what I mean. There's no risk; that's simply a sporting term. A fellow with sporting blood likes to pretend he's taking a chance, whether he is or not. Where did you get——" He stopped short, suddenly fancying it best not to inquire into the source of his companion's money, and in the momentary silence that followed a slow flush mounted to Roy's temples.
"The team practices a little at ten o'clock," said Rackliff, glancing at his handsome watch. "It's getting near that time. Come on over to the field and watch me throw out a bait for suckers."
"I don't think I will," said Hooker. "I believe I'd better keep away, and there won't be any talk made."
"Suit yourself," coughed Herbert, lighting another cigarette. "I've got to get busy if I'm going to hook anything."
Half an hour later Rackliff strolled onto the field and took up a position near one of the players' benches, where he watched the Oakdale nine at practice. At times he smiled with a supercilious air of amusement, and especially was this noticeable when Eliot complimented the players or some one made some sort of a fumble or fluke.
Practice was brought to a close with each member of the team taking a turn at the bat, base running being cut out, however. Grant did the pitching, for Springer was "saving his arm."
Chipper Cooper hit the ball handsomely three times in succession, and relinquished the bat with a whoop of satisfaction.
"Got my eye with me to-day," he cried. "We've all got 'em peeled; everybody has. Sanger'll have his troubles. We'll win like a breeze, fellows."
"How very confident you are," said Rackliff, moving slowly forward. "You all seem to think this game is going to be a cinch for Oakdale, but I've got an idea that you'll sing a different tune to-night."
"Oh, you have!" cried Chipper, turning on him. "Listen to Solomon, the wise man, fellers."
"I have a fancy that Barville is going to win," stated Herbert, not a whit abashed. "In fact, I believe it so much that I'm willing to make a little bet on it."
"Bet you a pint of peanuts," gurgled Chub Tuttle.
"Don't ruin yourself by such recklessness. I've got some real money."
"Dinged if he ain't a sport!" sneered Site Crane. "He wants to bet real money on the game."
"How does it happen you have the impression that Barville will beat us, Rackliff?" inquired Roger Eliot mildly.
"Well, now, I don't mind answering that," beamed Herbert. "Barville has got a surprise for you. I'm not supposed to mention it, but I can't keep it any longer. They've got a new catcher, a friend of mine, and——"
"I suppose you think he can play the whole game," scoffed Phil Springer. "A friend of yours, eh? Well, if he knows as much about baseball as you do, he'll be of great assistance to Barville!"
"I'm backing my knowledge with cash, if I can find anybody who has sand enough to bet with me," said Herbert.
"I'll bet you a dollar," shouted Phil.
"Only a dollar? Dear me! Can't you do any better than that? I've got fifteen long green chromos that I'd like to wager on Barville."
For a few moments this seemed to stagger the group that had gathered about him. Fifteen dollars was a lot of money, and it seemed doubtful if any other individual in the crowd, with the possible exception of Eliot, could raise as much—and Eliot would not bet.
"Wish I had fifteen dollars," muttered Crane. "I'd go him. It would be jest like findin' money."
Two or three of the boys drew aside and whispered together. Springer was one of these, and in a moment he called some others from the gathering near Herbert. There was more whispering and not a little nodding of heads, and then of a sudden Phil turned and walked back toward the city youth.
"Rackliff," he said, "if you really mean business, if you've got fifteen dollars you want to bet on Barville, meet me at the post office at noon, and I'll have the money to go you."
"Excellent," murmured Herbert, breathing forth a little thin blue smoke. "I'll be there with my money. Don't forget the appointment, Springer."
READY FOR THE GAME.
Never before had the Barville baseball team brought such a crowd of supporters into Oakdale. They came, boys and girls, wearing their school colors, bearing banners, and bringing tin horns and cowbells. The manner in which they swept into Oakdale and hurried, eager and laughing, toward the athletic field, plainly betokened their high confidence in the outcome of the contest. Even a few older persons came over from Barville on one pretext or another, and found it convenient to spend a portion of the afternoon watching the baseball game.
"Jinks!" chuckled Chipper Cooper, as he watched the visitors pour in and fill up the generous section of bleachers reserved for them. "They certainly act as if they thought they were going to have a snap to-day. Barville must be depopulated. Never fancied so many people lived over there."
"Beyond question," said Roger Eliot quietly, "they believe their team has at least an even chance for the game; otherwise, not half so many would have made the journey to watch it."
"It must be on account of their new ketcher," muttered Sile Crane. "I cal'late they think he's the whole cheese; but mebbe they'll find aout he ain't only a small slice of the rind. What's he look like, anyhaow?"
"There he is," said Roger, as the visiting team came trotting onto the field, led by Lee Sanger, its pitcher and captain, "that stocky, red-headed chap. See him?"
"My!" grinned Cooper. "He's a bird. Looks like he could eat hardware without getting indigestion."
The Barville crowd gave their players a rousing cheer, although they did not yet venture to blow the horns or jangle the cowbells. Those noise-producing implements were held in reserve, with apparent perfect assurance that an especially effective occasion for their use must arise during the game.
Captain Eliot shook hands cordially with Sanger, and suggested that he should at once take the field for practice.
"Hello, Roger!" called Bob Larkins, the Barville first baseman. "Great day for the game. We're going to make you fellows go some. You won't have the same sort of a cinch you had last year."
"I hope not," answered Eliot pleasantly. "There's a big crowd out to-day, and I'd like to see you fellows make the game interesting."
"Oh, don't you worry, it will be interesting enough," prophesied Larkins, getting his mitt and turning to jog down toward first.
At Eliot's elbow Phil Springer remarked, with a short laugh, in which there seemed to be a trace of nervousness: "They certainly have got their pucker up. They're boiling over with confidence."
"And it's a mistake to boil over with anything—confidence, doubt or fear," said Roger. "When the kettle boils aver, the soup gets scorched. Come, Phil, shake the kinks out of your arm with me, while they're taking their turn on the field."
His calm, unruffled manner seemed instantly to dissipate the nervousness which Phil had felt a touch of.
The practice of the visiting team was closely watched by nearly all the spectators, and it became apparent that the Barville boys had profited by the coaching of some one who had found it possible to train them with good effect. They were swift, sure and snappy in their work, displaying little of the hesitation and uncertainty usually revealed by an ordinary country school team, even in practice. Copley, the stocky, red-headed catcher from Roxbury, received the balls when they were returned from the infield and the out, catching the most of them one-handedly with the big mitt, although he seemed to do this without flourish or any attempt at grand-standing. Now and then he grinned and nodded over some especially fine catch in the outfield or clever stop of a grounder or liner by an infielder; nevertheless, he let Sanger, who was batting, do all the talking to the players.
Roy Hooker, wearing the crimson colors of his school, sat on the bleachers at the edge of the group of Oakdale Academy students, endeavoring to mask his feelings behind a pretext of loyal interest in the home nine; but, nevertheless, in spite of his inwardly reiterated assertion that he had been used "rotten," he was annoyed by a constantly recurring sense of treachery to his own team. The skill displayed in practice by the visitors in a measure set at rest the doubts he had continued to entertain concerning Rackliff's wisdom in backing Barville.
"I'll win some money to-day, all right," he thought; "but, really, I'd rather be wearing an Oakdale suit, even if we lose."
As the Barville nine came in from the field and Oakdale went out, Roy saw Herbert Rackliff saunter forth and speak to Newt Copley, who shook hands with him. Then Herbert drew Copley aside and began talking to him in very low tones, and with unusual animation. Still watching, Hooker beheld Copley nodding his head, and even at that distance Roy could see that he was grinning.
"Hey, old Rack!" Chipper Cooper shouted from the field. "Brace him up—that's right. Tell him he's got to win or you're financially ruined."
Herbert pretended that he did not hear, and, after a final word with Copley, slowly sauntered back into the crowd. He was not wearing the Oakdale colors.
"I'm glad nobody knows that part of the money he put up was furnished by me," thought Hooker. "He's got an awful crust. I couldn't do a thing like that, and be so cheeky and unconcerned. Gee! but he'll get the fellows down on him."
And now, as the time for the game to begin was at hand, the umpire, supplied with two new balls in their boxes, called the captains of both teams and consulted with them for a moment or two. Directly Eliot sought the body protector and mask, and Bert Dingley, standing at the end of the bench on which the visitors had seated themselves, began swinging two bats. There was a rustling stir among the spectators as they settled themselves down to watch the opening of the contest. The Oakdale players took their positions on the field, Rodney Grant going into right, while Chub Tuttle remained on the bench as spare man. Phil Springer had peeled off his sweater and was pulling on his light left-hand glove as he walked toward the pitcher's position.
"Ladies and gentlemen," called the youthful umpire, facing the crowd, "this is the opening game of the high school league, Barville against Oakdale. Battery for Oakdale, Springer and Eliot. Play ball!"
With that command, he tossed a clean, new baseball to Phil, who caught it with his gloved hand, glanced at it perfunctorily, gave it an unnecessary wipe against his hip, made sure his teammates were ready, and placed his left foot on the slab.
THE FIRST INNING.
A white streak went shooting through the air; something whizzed high and close past Dingley, who dodged a bit.
"Ball one!" called the umpire.
"Spare him, Phil—don't hit him!" cried Chipper Cooper, moving about nervously.
"There's speed!" came from Sile Crane. "He can't see that kind."
"Get 'em over—please get 'em over, if you can!" entreated Bob Larkins, who had taken a position on the coaching line, near first base.
"All right, Phil," said Roger Eliot quietly and reassuringly, returning the ball. "You've got powder behind them."
Springer's nervousness had returned with redoubled force. He seemed to feel something quivering somewhere within himself, and, having forgotten to get a chew of gum, he suddenly realized that his mouth was dry as a chip. When Roger called for an out, he bent the ball so wide of the plate that Eliot scarcely succeeded in stopping it.
"Oh—dear—me!" whooped Larkins. "He can't find the pan. Take a ramble, Ding; wait and he'll walk you."
To Springer's relief, Eliot did not seem disturbed. Roger signalled next for a straight one, and held up his mitt behind the inside corner of the plate. Doing his best to be steady, Phil responded by sending one over that corner; and Dingley, waiting, heard the umpire call a strike.
"Oh, yes, he'll walk him—not," laughed Cooper. "Let him wait. He'll have a chance to ramble to the bench in a minute."
Phil saw Eliot smile a bit through the meshes of the catching mask, and then, nodding at the signal for a drop, he started the ball high, but gave it the proper twist to bring it shooting down across the batter's shoulders.
"Two strikes!" declared the umpire, at which Dingley shook his head protestingly.
"My eye! He is a good waiter," yelled Cooper gayly. "He's worked in a restaurant some time. You've got him now, Phil."
Trying to "pull" Dingley, Phil again used a curve that was too wide, and the third ball was called.
The batter gripped his club and stood ready, determination in his manner. The infielders crouched on their toes, and the outfielders were prepared to run in any direction. Springer leaned forward to get the signal, then swung into an elaborate delivery which he had practiced. Another drop was tried, but this time Dingley hit it. Up into the air popped the ball, and Cooper, yelling "I'll take it!" raced over behind second, to smother it surely when it came down.
Something like a sigh of relief escaped Springer's lips when he saw the ball held by the lively little shortstop, and in a measure his confidence was restored..
"They can't hit that kind out of the infield, Spring, old dandy," laughed Cooper. "You've got an elegant collection up your sleeve to-day."
The home crowd cheered, and Barville sent out Pratt, the second batter.
"Here's the next victim," cried Jack Nelson, from his position near second. "He'll be easy, too."
Pratt was clever at sacrificing, but without a runner ahead of him it was up to him to try for a hit, and he fouled the first two balls.
"Now, you've got him sure, Phil," said Cooper. "He's a regular hen-roost robber; he loves fouls. Don't let him get away, for if he does he'll crow."
As two strikes and no balls had been called, Pratt apparently expected Springer to waste the next one, and in that he made his mistake; for Phil, growing steadier, put over a sizzler on the inside corner.
"You're out!" shouted the umpire, and Pratt turned sadly and disgustedly toward the bench.
"Wonder what that Barville bunch is going to do with those horns and cowbells," cried Cooper, as the Oakdale cheer died away.
Whiting, the next batter, poked a hot one directly at Chipper, who plunged forward to get it on the first bound and made a miserable fumble. Chasing the ball, the little fellow snapped it up and threw wild to Crane.
Whiting improved his chance to take second, where he laughingly came to anchor, chaffing Cooper, who was making some very uncomplimentary remarks about himself.
"Here we go! Here we go!" roared Larkins. "Now we score. On your toes, Whiting! Here's the boy to drive you home."
Springer shivered suddenly as he saw the stocky, red-headed catcher of the visiting team step into the batter's box. Something told Phil that Copley would hit the ball, and in keen apprehension he pitched the first two so wide of the plate that Eliot was forced to stretch himself to get them. Copley hunched his shoulders and grinned tauntingly at the nervous fellow on the slab.
"Aw, put one over," he urged. "Lost your nerve? Going to walk me? You don't dare——"
Apparently, he had relaxed and was holding his bat carelessly, so Phil tried to push over a swift, straight one. With a smash Copley landed on the horsehide, driving it toward right field.
"Ah!" gasped the spectators.
"Go!" yelled Larkins. "Score on it, Whiting! It's a two-bagger!"
Out there in right garden Rodney Grant was sprinting after that ball almost as it left Copley's bat. There seemed scarcely a chance for Grant to reach the whistling sphere, but he covered ground with amazing speed and leaped into the air, thrusting out his bare right hand. The ball smacked into that unprotected hand and stuck there, as Grant dropped back to the turf.
A few too eager enthusiasts on the Barville bleachers had started to blow horns and ring bells when they beheld Copley's drive shooting safely, to all appearances, into that unoccupied portion of the field; now, of a sudden, these sounds were drowned by the great yell—almost a roar—of joyous relief and exultation which burst from the Oakdale sympathizers. On those seats boys wearing the crimson colors jumped up and down, shrieking wildly, while they pounded other boys, similarly decorated, over their heads and shoulders; girls likewise screamed, waving frantically the bright banners, on each of which was emblazoned a large white letter O.
At the smash of bat and ball Phil Springer's teeth had snapped together, as if to guard his heart from leaping from his mouth; and despairingly he had whirled around to watch the course of the ball, perceiving out of the corner of his eye Whiting, with a long start off second, fairly tearing up the ground as he flew toward third on his way to the plate.
Phil likewise saw Rod Grant stretching himself to get that whistling white sphere, and even as a voice within the pitcher's brain seemed to cry, "He can't touch it!" the Texan made that amazing leap into the air and held the ball.
"Mercy!" gasped Phil. "What a catch!"
He waited for Grant, who came loping in from the field, his face flushed, his eyes full of laughter.
"Oh, you dandy!" cried Phil, giving his chum a resounding open-handed slap on the shoulder.
"That was reaching for it some."
"I sure didn't think I could touch it," confessed Rod; "but I was bound to try my handsomest for it." Which was characteristic of the young Texan.
"They're cheering for you," said Phil. Then jovially he reached and lifted Rod's cap with one hand, at the same time using the other hand to give his companion's head a push, thus forcing him to bow.
Newt Copley surveyed Oakdale's right fielder disgustedly. "That was a fearful blind stab," he said sourly. "Didn't know you had it, did you?"
"Not till I looked to see," acknowledged Rod pleasantly.
Eliot gave the boy from Texas a look of approval. "That's the way to get after them," he said. "That's playing baseball and supporting a pitcher."
"I was pretty rotten, wasn't I?" said Phil with a touch of dejection.
"Far from it," returned the captain, "you were pretty good. Copley was the only man who really made a bid for a hit."
"Sure," chipped in Cooper. "I was the real, rank thing, and if they'd scored I'd been responsible for it. I should have nipped Whiting without a struggle."
Phil suddenly felt better, as it was true that none of the first four men to face him, the pick of the enemy's batters, had hit safely; for which, cutting out Grant's performance, he was immediately inclined to take the credit, due quite as much, however, to Eliot as to him.
Sanger warmed up a bit by whipping a few to Larkins at first, while Copley was buckling on the body protector and adjusting the mask. Oakdale had put her second baseman, Jack Nelson, at the head of the batting order, and Jack did not delay the game by loafing on his way into the batter's box.
"Get the first one, Sang!" barked Copley, squatting behind the plate and giving a signal. "He looks like a mark. Keep him off the pan, Mr. Umpire; make him stay in his box." Then, under his breath, speaking just loud enough for Nelson to hear, he added: "Not that it makes any difference, for you couldn't hit a balloon."
"Couldn't I!" muttered Jack, strangely annoyed, for there was something indescribably irritating about the manner in which the red-headed catcher had sneered those words.
This irritation grew when Sanger warped over two zig-zags, and Nelson missed them both. Copley made no further remark, but his husky chucklings over the batter's failures, sent the blood to Nelson's head and assisted him in finally misjudging a high one on the inside corner.
"You're out!" pronounced the umpire.
"That's the pitching, cap!" laughed Larkins. "They had their fun with you last year; now it's your turn."
Berlin Barker, regarded as an excellent batsman, was almost as easy for Sanger. True, Barker did foul the ball once, but that was the only time he touched it, and he likewise returned to the bench in a much disturbed frame of mind.
"Mr. Umpire," called Eliot, "will you keep that catcher from talking to the batters?"
"Go on!" growled Copley. "Who's talking to them? I can talk to the pitcher if I choose, and I've got a right to have a little conversation with myself."
"Don't pay any attention to him, Springer," warned Roger; "that's his trick."
Phil also missed the first ball delivered by Sanger.
"This fellow thinks he can pitch," cried Copley. "He's had a dream."
"There he goes, Mr. Umpire," cried Roger. "He's talking to the batter again."
"Oh, say, forget it!" scoffed the red-headed backstop. "I'm talking about our pitcher. He can't pitch a little bit—oh, no! He just dreamed he could, that's all. Put another one right over the pan, cap; there's no danger."
But Sanger, taking Copley's signal, bent one wide, and Phil fouled it off into the first base bleachers, where it was deftly caught by a spectator.
"He's in a hole," said Copley. "I wonder how these people ever got a hit off you, Sang."
The batter tried to steady himself. Two "teasers" he disdained, and then bit at a drop and was out, Sanger having fanned the first three men to face him; which seemed to justify the Barville spectators in breaking forth with their horns and bells at last, and they did so tumultuously.
THE CRUCIAL MOMENT.
On the bleachers Roy Hooker breathed easier. "Len Roberts certainly told the truth," he thought. "Sanger is a crackerjack pitcher."
"What did you say?" asked a fellow at Roy's elbow.
"I?" gasped Hooker, startled. "I didn't say anything."
"I thought you did. I thought I heard you mutter something about Sanger. That fellow has developed, hasn't he? But we'll get onto him yet. When these strike-out twirlers go to pieces, they're liable to blow up completely. The boys will pound him before the game is over."
"I hope they do," fabricated Roy.
"If Springer only keeps steady," continued his seatmate, "it will be all right; but I'm just a little bit afraid of Phil, for he lacks the heart to stand punishment. If they get to hitting him—well, Eliot will have to try Grant."
"Grant's no pitcher," said Roy.
"I don't know about that. He hasn't had any experience, that's true; but Springer himself has said that Rod's got the makings of one. Wasn't that a corking catch he made?"
"It was lucky for Springer."
Larkins was now up, and he proceeded to wallop the second ball pitched to him, driving it humming down the third-base line for two sacks, which caused the horns and cowbells to break into a tumultuous uproar. Sanger followed, and he straightened out a bender into a whistling line drive to the left of Chipper Cooper; whereupon Cooper made up for his error in the first inning by forking the sphere with his gloved hand and snapping it to Nelson, who leaped on to second and caught Larkins lunging hopelessly back for the sack.
The horns and cowbells were suddenly silent, while the sympathizers with the crimson frantically cheered this beautiful double play.
"Great, Chipper—simply great!" cried Springer as soon as he could get his breath.
"Oh, pretty good, pretty good," returned the little fellow, with mock modesty. "A trifling improvement on my last performance, I'll admit."
Tom Cline likewise hit the ball hard, but he lifted it into the waiting hands of Ben Stone, who scarcely moved a step from his position in center field.
"Some people have great luck," cried Newt Copley, with his eyes on the Oakdale pitcher, who was walking toward the bench. "Wait till the streak breaks, and then we'll see the airship go up."
Ben Stone got the first clean hit off Sanger, driving the ball zipping through the infield. Eliot, who followed, signaled that he would bunt, and Stone was well on his way toward second when the Oakdale captain lay a dead one down a few feet in front of the pan. Roger came near turning his attempted sacrifice into a hit, but Sanger managed to get the ball and whip it to first in time to catch the runner by a margin of the closest sort.
"That's playing the game, all right," cried Nelson from the coaching line. "Here's where we score."
"In your mind," derided Copley.
Sile Crane, trying hard to bring Stone home, made four fouls in succession, and then struck out.
"Two men, cap," grinned Copley. "Old Stoney will expire at the second station. Here's the cowboy; take his pelt, hide, horns and hoofs."
When Sanger had fooled Grant twice, it began to look as if he really would succeed in "taking his pelt"; but, declining to reach for the decoys, Rod finally met the ball on the trade mark, lining it over the center fielder's head, after which he made third before he was stopped by the wild gestures and cries of the delighted coacher, Nelson.
Roy Hooker swallowed a lump in his throat. "Why, they're hitting Sanger!" he muttered huskily.
"Hitting him!" shouted the overjoyed fellow at Roy's elbow. "They're hammering him for fair. Told you they might do it."
"But he'll brace up," said Roy. "He's got to brace up."
"Let's hope he won't till the fellows put this game on ice. Here's Cooper. He's not a strong batter, but—— Oh, gee! look a' that! Look a' that! A Texas leaguer! That scores Grant!"
Indeed, Chipper had bumped a Texas leaguer over the head of the second baseman, who made a desperate but futile effort to reach the ball; and Oakdale had every reason to cheer as Rodney Grant easily scampered home from third.
Sanger really seemed to be off his feet, and Sleuth Piper, trying for a hit, drove two fouls into the crowd on the bleachers.
"Straighten 'em out a little, Pipe," pleaded Cooper, returning for the second time to first. "You've got my tongue hanging out now."
Copley, squatting, signaled for a straight ball. Sanger, apprehensive and nervous, shook his head. Copley promptly repeated the signal, and insisted on it. Finally Sanger obeyed, putting one straight over.
Sleuth swung at that straight one, his heart full of confidence, but he missed it cleanly. In a moment he was raging at the catcher, who had promptly snapped off his mask and tossed it aside.
"Somebody will break your head if you try that again," snarled Piper.
"What's the matter with you?" flung back Copley belligerently. "You've got bats in your belfry."
"You'll have a bat across your belfry if you repeat that trick," threatened Sleuth stiffly. "That's all I've got to say. Don't you touch my bat again when I'm hitting."
Copley laughed derisively at the excited words of the slim, angry, pale-faced fellow; and the umpire, not having seen the catcher's prestigious interference, was unable to penalize the offender.
His anxiety somewhat relieved by this termination of the home team's batting streak, Roy Hooker looked around for Rackliff, and discovered Herbert coolly sauntering down beside the ropes toward first base. As if he felt the attraction of Roy's glance, the city youth turned his head and smiled in an undisturbed manner, which was doubtless intended to convey his unshaken confidence in the ultimate outcome of the game, and really did much to soothe and reassure his agitated friend.
As Oakdale took the field, Copley was seen speaking hurriedly to Len Roberts, who was to lead off at bat in the third. Roberts, listening, nodded, and his face was contorted by that crooked grin which always seemed trying to pull his crooked nose back into its proper place. Then, as he stepped into the box, he shot a glance toward the standees back of first, who had pushed out close to the ropes, among whom Herbert Rackliff was carelessly lighting a cigarette.
"Never mind, Barville," called Herbert in a low, yet singularly distinct, tone of voice, while Eliot was signaling to Springer. "The game is young, and I'll bet you'll win. That's straight."
Eliot's past experience with the visitors had taught him that Roberts rarely sought for a hit unless forced to do so, being the kind of a batter who preferred to wait and walk whenever he could; therefore the Oakdale captain signed for Springer to put the first ball over.
Barely had Sile Crane flung over his shoulder the words, "Aw, go lay down!"—directed toward Rackliff—when, to the surprise of very many beside Eliot, Roberts landed hard on Springer's straight one, driving it toward center field. Fortunately, Stone had little trouble in reaching the ball and catching it.
"Hard luck, Len," sounded the voice of Rackliff, as Oakdale's burst of applause died down. "Hit 'em where they ain't; that's the way. Here comes the huckleberry now," he added, as Berry, the visitors' shortstop, took the place of Roberts. "He'll hit it out."
"This Berry will be picked in a moment," cried Cooper instantly. "He's ripe. Get him, Springer."
Crack!—Berry planted the willow against Phil's outcurve, and again the ball sailed toward the outfield, this time going toward right. Again the fielder had no trouble in reaching it ere it fell to the ground, and Grant scooped and held it while running lightly forward.
"He hit it out, sure enough," chortled Cooper. "Rack, you're ruined—financially busted wide open."
Still Herbert seemed unruffled, continuing to smile. "If I lose," he said, "I can stand it."
"But I can't," muttered Roy Hooker beneath his breath.
Springer, knowing Dingley, Barville's leading batter, who was again up, was dangerous, tried two wide ones to start with; but the fellow did not even wiggle his bat at them.
"Get into it!" called Rackliff suddenly, as Phil swung into his delivery for the third ball.
Dingley seemed to fall back from the plate a little, and again bat and ball met squarely, an inshoot being sent humming over the head of Cooper, who made a ludicrously ineffective jump for it, the ball passing at least ten feet above his outstretched hand. But Piper, leaping forward and speeding up surprisingly, made a forward lunge at the last moment, and performed a shoestring catch that brought the entire Oakdale crowd to its feet with a shout of wonderment and delight.
Eliot calmly removed the catching mask and swung the body protector over his head. "Royal support, Phil," he observed, as Springer trotted happily toward the bench.