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Jack Winters' Baseball Team - Or, The Rivals of the Diamond
by Mark Overton
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"Well, hardly likely," Jack told him, "because the man has ducked down as if he didn't want to be seen by her, though he's looking like everything all the while."

"That's little Barbara Badger, the five-year-old sister of Fred," Steve was saying. "She's got a basket on her arm, too, and I reckon her ma is sending her to the store down the street for a loaf of bread, or something like that. Everybody seems to agree that Barbara is the most winsome little girl in the whole of Chester."

"Barring none," admitted Toby, immediately. "Why, she's just like a little golden-haired fairy, my dad says, and since he's something of an artist he ought to know when he sees one. Yep, you were right, Steve, the child is going after something at the store. I wonder now would that wretch have the nerve to stop Barbara, and try to get some information from the little thing?"

"What if he tries to kidnap her?" suggested Steve, suddenly, doubling up his sturdy looking fist aggressively, as though to indicate that it would not be safe for the stranger to attempt such a terrible thing while he was within hearing distance.

"Oh! I hardly think there's any fear of that happening," Jack assured the aggressive member of the trio. "But he acts now as if he meant to drop back here out of sight, so perhaps we'd better slip around this bunch of bushes so he won't learn how we've been watching him."

Suiting their actions to Jack's words, the three boys quickly "made themselves scarce," which was no great task when such an admirable hiding-place as that stack of bushes lay conveniently near by. Sure enough, the stranger almost immediately came around the clump and made sure that it hid him from the small cottage lying beyond. Jack, taking a look on his own account from behind the bushes, saw that Mrs. Badger had started to reenter the house; while pretty little Barbara was contentedly trudging along the cinder pavement.

Evidently the child was quite accustomed to doing errands of this nature for her mother, when Fred did not happen to be around; nor was it likely that Mrs. Badger once dreamed Barbara might get into any sort of trouble, for the neighborhood, while not fashionable, was at least said to be safe, and honest people dwelt there.

"He's staring as hard as anything at Barbara," whispered Toby, who had been peeping. "Why, he acts for all the world like he could fairly eat the sweet little thing up. Perhaps it's a good job we chance to be around here after all," but Jack shook his head as though he did not dream any harm was going to come to little Barbara.

"If he's so much taken up watching her," he remarked, "we can spy on him without his being any the wiser. But take care not to move too quickly at any time; and a sneeze or a cough would spoil everything for us."

Accordingly, they crept forward. Looking cautiously around their covert, the boys could easily see that Barbara Badger had by now turned the bushes and reached the spot where the stranger stood.

Now he was speaking to her, bending low, and using what struck the suspicious Steve as a wheedling tone; though to Jack it was just what any gentleman might use in seeking to gain the confidence of a child who had never seen him before.

Apparently the little girl did not seem to be afraid. Perhaps she was accustomed to having people speak kindly to her on the street, just to see that winsome smile break over her wonderfully pretty face. At any rate, she had answered him, and as he started to walk slowly at her side, it seemed as though they had entered into quite an animated conversation, the stranger asking questions, and the little girl giving such information as lay in her power.

"He's just trying to find out how the land lies in Fred's house, that's what he's doing, the sneak!" gritted Steve.

"Oh! how do we know but what the man has a small girl of his own somewhere?" Jack interposed; "and Barbara somehow reminds him of her. Besides, can you blame anybody for trying to get acquainted with Fred's sweet little sister?"

Steve subsided after that. Apparently he could find no answer to the logic Jack was able to bring against his suspicions. By skirting the inside of a fence it would be possible for them to follow after the man and the child without disclosing their presence.

"Let's do it!" suggested Steve, after Toby had made mention of this fact.

Accordingly they started to steal along. As the others were walking very slowly the three boys found no great difficulty in keeping close behind them. They could even pick up something of what passed between the pair on the cinder pavement. The man was asking Barbara about her home folks, and seemed particularly interested in hearing about mother's pale looks and many sighs; and also how sister Lucy seemed to be able to walk better lately than at any time in the past; though she did have to use a crutch; but she hoped to be able to go to school in the fall if she continued to improve.

Fred's name did not seem to be mentioned once by the man. Even when Barbara told some little thing in which the boy figured, the man failed to ask about him. His whole interest was centered in the mother, the crippled child, and this wonderfully attractive little angel at his side.

Jack also noticed that he had hold of Barbara's small hand, which he seemed to be clutching eagerly. Yes, it must be the man had a daughter of his own far away, and memories of her might be making him sorry that he had engaged in such a disreputable business as tempting Barbara's brother to betray his mates of the baseball team.

Then the man stopped short. He had looked around and discovered that if he went any further he might be noticed from the side windows of the Badger cottage. Apparently he did not wish that the child's mother should discover him walking with her. Jack somehow felt an odd thrill shoot through him when he saw the man suddenly bend his head and press several kisses on the little hand that had been nestling so confidingly in his own palm. That one act seemed to settle it in the boy's mind that there was more or less truth in his conjecture in connection with another Barbara in some distant city waiting for her father to come back home.

"Say, he's acting real spoony, isn't he, Jack?" gasped Toby, taken aback as he saw the man do this. "I reckon now, Steve, your ogre isn't quite as tough a character as you imagined. He's got a spark of human about him, seems like, and like most Chester folks has to knuckle down before that pretty kid."

"Oh! he may be acting that way for a purpose," grumbled the unconvinced Steve, still unwilling to give up. "Such fellows generally have a deep game up their sleeve, you understand. Just wait and see, that's all, Toby Hopkins. I don't like his actions one little bit, if you want to know how I feel about it."

Almost immediately afterwards Toby spoke again in a guarded tone.

"Look at her picking something up from among the cinders, and holding it out! Why, it looks like a shining new fifty-cent bit, which is just what it is. And to think we walked right over it when we came along, and not one of us glimpsed what the sharp eyes of that child have found."

"Huh! mebbe it wasn't there when we came along, Toby!" suggested Steve. "Just as like as not that chap he dropped the coin, and ground it part-way into the cinders with his toe, then managed so little Barbara should pick it up. There, listen to him now telling her that findings is keepings, and that the money belongs to her by right of discovery. That was a smart dodge, wasn't it? I wonder what his game is. Can you guess it, Jack?"

"I decline to commit myself to an answer," came the reply.

"That means you've got some sort of hazy suspicion, which may and again may not pan out later on," hinted Steve. "Oh! well, it seems as if we've run smack up against a great puzzle, and I never was a good hand at figuring such things out—never guessed a rebus or an acrostic in my whole life. Tell us when you strike pay dirt, that's a good fellow, Jack."

"Perhaps I will," chuckled the other, still keeping his eyes glued on the figures of little Barbara and the stranger, not far distant.

Now the man had evidently said good-bye, for, as she tripped along the walk, she turned to wave her chubby hand to him, and even kiss the tips of her fingers to her scarlet rosebud lips as if sending a kiss back.

He stood there staring after her. Jack watching saw him take out a handkerchief and wipe his eyes several times. Apparently that meeting with Barbara Badger had affected the man considerably. Jack hoped it would be for his good, and also for the benefit of Fred Badger, who seemed to be struggling with some secret that was weighing his young spirit down.

Then the man turned and looked long and earnestly back toward the humble cottage home of the widow. He was shaking his head and muttering something half under his breath; but somehow Jack thought he did not look very ferocious just then. In fact, after the man strode away and they were free to once more come out on the walk, Jack had a feeling that the stranger did not appear quite so much like a desperate city sport as he had formerly believed.



CHAPTER X

THE WARNING

"Hello! there, Jack, you're wanted!"

The boys were practicing on the following afternoon when this hail reached the ears of the first baseman, diligently stopping terrific grounders that came from the bat of substitute catcher, Hemming, the best man on the nine for this sort of work.

So Jack trotted in toward the group near the bench. A score or two of boys, with also a sprinkling of enthusiastic girls, had gathered to watch and admire the different plays which were put through, and to generously applaud any especially clever one.

Jack saw a boy leave the group and advance toward him. He felt a little apprehension when he recognized Bailey, the smart shortstop of the famous Harmony nine. What did this mean? Could it be possible that those fellows of the other town had gotten "cold feet" after the last game, and were about to withdraw from the match to play out the tie?

Jack could hardly believe such a thing possible. He knew and respected Martin, the gentlemanly captain of the rival team, too well, to think he would show the white feather. Why, it would be talked about all through the county, and Harmony could never again make any boast. Oh! no, something of a minor nature must have come up, and Martin wished to consult with the captain of the Chester nine in advance—possibly some local ground rule had been framed which, in all honor, he believed the others ought to know about before the time came to apply it.

"Hello! Jack!" said Bailey with the easy familiarity that boys in general show when dealing with one another, though they may even be comparative strangers.

"Glad to see you, Bailey," returned the other. "What brings you over this way again? Anything new come up?"

None of the other players had followed Bailey when he advanced. They seemed to take it for granted that if it was any of their business, Jack would be sure to call them up.

"Why, something has happened that we thought you fellows ought to know about," continued the shortstop of the Harmony team, with a little trace of confusion in his manner.

"And Captain Martin sent you over as a messenger, is that it, Bailey?" asked Jack, shaking hands cordially; for he had liked the other chap through all the two games already played; Bailey was clean in everything he did, and that sort of a boy always appealed to Jack Winters, detesting fraud and trickery as he did.

"That's it, Jack. He gave me this note to deliver; and I'm to answer any questions you may see fit to ask."

There was something a bit queer in the other's manner as he said this; and the way in which he thrust out a sealed envelope at the same time smacked of the dramatic. Jack took it with rising curiosity. Really, this began to assume a more serious aspect than he had at first thought could be possible. It was therefore with considerable interest he tore off the end of the envelope, and pulled out the enclosure, which proved to be a full page of writing easily deciphered.

Since it is necessary that the contents of that missive should be understood by the reader we shall take the liberty of looking over Jack's shoulder and devouring Martin's letter as eagerly as the recipient did.

"To the Captain and Members of the Chester Baseball Team:

"We, the entire Harmony baseball organization, take this method of warning you that it is more than half suspected there is a miserable plot afloat to cause you fellows to lose the game next Saturday through a fluke. It may not be true, but we believe it to be our duty to put you on your guard, because we would disdain to profit by any such trickery bordering on a crime. There are some reckless sports up from the city, who have been wagering heavily on our winning out. After the game last Saturday, it seems that they have begun to get cold feet, and believe that Harmony might not have such a soft snap as they thought when they made all those heavy wagers. Needless to state the boys of the team do not share in their fears, for we are perfectly confident that we can down you again, as we did in the first game. But we would be ashamed if anything happened to cast the slightest doubt on the glory of our anticipated victory. We believe you Chester fellows to be an honorable lot and no matter whoever wins we want it to be a victory as clean and honest as they make them. We intend to have men on the watch for crooked business. One thing we beg you to do, which is to set a guard on your water-bucket, and allow no one not a player on your side to go anywhere near it! There have been occasions on record where dope was given through the drinking water, that made players sick, and unable to do their best in the game, thus losing for their side.

"We send you this, believing that you will give us full credit for being lovers of clean sport. So keep in the pink of condition for Saturday, and able to do your prettiest, for, believe us, you will have need of every ounce of ability you possess, because Hendrix says he never felt more fit in his life.

Signed CAPTAIN LEM MARTIN, For the entire Harmony Baseball Team."

When Jack had finished reading this remarkable letter, the first thing he did was characteristic of the boy—he reached out his hand toward Bailey.

"Shake again, Bailey! I honor such sentiments, and believe me, the boys of Chester will never forget such a friendly spirit as your team shows. We, too, would refuse to play in a game where we had the slightest reason to believe crooked work was going on, that would be to the disadvantage of our adversaries."

The little shortstop's eyes glistened as he wrung Jack's hand.

"Glad to see you take it in the right spirit, old fellow," he hastened to say. "We were horribly worked up when we got wind of this business through sheer accident. Only a mean skunk like a tricky sport from the city could dream of doing such a thing. But now it's come out, you'll find that all Harmony will be on edge looking for signs of treachery toward you fellows."

"How about telling the other boys?" inquired Jack.

"You're at perfect liberty to do that," the shortstop assured him. "In fact, we expected you would. The sooner the news is carried through Chester the better chance that nothing so low-down will be attempted; and no matter how the game turns out, it will be clean. Much as we want to win we all agree that we'd rather be badly licked by Chester than have it ever said there was a shadow of fraud on our victory."

So Jack beckoned to the rest.

"Only the members of the team, subs. as well as regulars, are wanted here!" he called aloud; and accordingly, they came forward, most of the boys exchanging looks of natural curiosity, and doubtless fearing that some hitch had occurred in the programme for the ensuing Saturday.

Judge of their amazement when Jack read aloud the letter from Captain Martin. It seemed almost unbelievable to some of the boys. Others who always made it a practice to glean all the baseball news in the city papers that came to certain Chester homes, may have known that such evil practices had been attempted occasionally, especially where unprincipled men began to wager money on the result of championship games.

All of them seemed unanimously of the opinion that Harmony had evinced a most laudable and sportsmanlike spirit in sending this strange warning. It made them feel that in struggling for the mastery on the diamond with such manly fellows, they were up against the right kind of foe-men. Indeed, even a defeat at the hands of Harmony would not seem so dreadful a disaster, now that they knew Martin and his crowd to be such good fellows.

Bailey did not wait to listen to many of the remarks that followed the reading of the letter. He could see that Chester had received the warning in the same friendly spirit in which it had been sent; and this was the news he meant to carry back with him.

"I want to own up they're a pretty decent bunch of ball players after all!" declared Phil Parker, who had been known to say a few hard things about the hustling Harmony boys after that first game, in which Jack's team was given such a lively set-back.

"Glad you've found that out, Phil," remarked Steve Mullane, drily. "Next time don't be so quick to judge your opponents. Because a chap happens to be a hustler on the baseball or football field, isn't a sign that he's anything of a brute in private life. Only the hustlers succeed on the diamond. Umpire-baiters are sometimes the kind of men who are bullied by a little bit of a woman at home."

"That's right for you, Steve!" declared Herbert Jones, nodding his head in the affirmative. "I've got an uncle who used to be known as a regular scorcher on the gridiron, and who gained the name of a terror; but, say, you ought to see that big hulk wash dishes for Mrs. Jones, who can walk under his arm. Why, in private life he's as soft as mush, and his fog-horn voice is toned down to almost the squeak of a fiddle when he sings the baby to sleep. It isn't always safe to judge a man by what he does when he's playing ball."

"But just think of the meanness of those men wanting to put some kind of dope in our drinking water!" ejaculated Fred Badger in evident anger. "Why, they might have made some of us real sick in the bargain, as well as lost us the game. Such scoundrels ought to be locked up; they're a menace to any community."

"Well, Harmony town is responsible for pretty much all of this," suggested Jack. "They are letting things go along over there that sleepy old Chester never would think of permitting. Those who sow the wind must expect to reap the whirlwind sooner or later."

"Yes," added Toby Hopkins, with a snort, "they seemed to think it gave tone to their games to have those city men come up and back Harmony with money. Let's hope that after the lesson our worthy mayor set them last Saturday and with this disgrace threatening their good name those Harmony folks will get busy cleaning their Augean stables before any real harm is done."

Every one had an opinion, and yet they were pretty much along similar lines. The Chester boys thought it terrible that such a warning had to be sent out; though of course they all gave Martin and his crowd full credit for doing the right thing.

Jack was interested in watching Fred Badger, and listening to what he had to say from time to time. Apparently Fred was as indignant as any of them, and so far as Jack could tell there was not a particle of sham about his fervent denunciation of the evil deed contemplated by those strangers anxious to beat the Chester people, who wagered with them, out of their money.

And yet what else could be expected of such men, accustomed to evil ways, and earning their money at race-tracks and the like? What of a boy who had the confidence of his mates on the team, conspiring to sell them out for a bribe? Jack fairly writhed as he thought of it. Looking at Fred's earnest face as he spoke he could not bring himself to fully believe the other capable of attempting such a dastardly trick; and yet Jack had his fears all the same.



CHAPTER XI

SITTING ON THE LID

The troubles and tribulations of the captain of a baseball team are many, and ofttimes peculiar, as Jack was fast finding out. A load of responsibility rests on his shoulders such as none of the other players knows. He must watch every fellow, and notice the slightest deterioration in his playing; be ready to chide, or give encouraging words; and lie awake nights cudgeling his brains to discover a way of getting better work out of certain delinquent members of the nine, or else making way for a substitute who gives promise of being worth his salt.

Jack was already having troubles enough, he thought, what with the petty annoyances, his grave suspicions of Fred Badger's loyalty, and now this prospect of foul play being attempted by those evil-disposed men from the city, only bent on reaping a harvest of money from the outcome of the game. There was more to come for the boy who was "sitting on the lid," it turned out.

Donohue had been acting somewhat queerly during the last two days, Jack noticed. True enough, he came to the practice games, and seemed to have all of his old cunning in his arm when they had him pitch, striking out men at pleasure; but he never smiled, would draw off to himself frequently, and was seen to shake his head as though his thoughts could not be any too pleasant.

What could be ailing the boy, Jack wondered? Surely after his wonderful and even brilliant work in the box on the preceding Saturday, Alec was not beginning to doubt his ability to turn back those sluggers on Harmony's roll. No, Jack concluded that it could not be this.

"I've just got to get Alec by himself, and have it out with him!" he told Toby, with whom he had been earnestly discussing the matter. "Whatever is troubling the boy, the sooner it's laid the better; for if he keeps on in the frame of mind he seems to be in just now, it's bound to affect his work when we want him to be at his very best."

"That's the only way to do, Jack," his chum assured him. "Get Alec by himself, and talk to him like a Dutch uncle. Nobody can do it as well as you, I'm sure. And, Jack, if there's any way I can help, any of us, in fact, remember you've only got to speak. Every fellow on the nine would work his fingers to the bone to please you. And, besides, we've got our hearts set on winning that game. It would mean the making of Chester as a town where clean sport for boys is indulged in."

Jack therefore watched until he saw Alec Donohue put on his coat and saunter off, as though heading for home. Then he proceeded to follow after the pitcher.

"I'm going your way, Alec," he remarked, when the other turned his head and lifted his eyebrows in some little surprise at discovering the captain of the nine trotting along in his wake. "Besides, I want to have a nice little talk with you while we have the chance."

Young Donohue flushed a bit.

"I rather half expected you'd say that, Jack," he remarked, with a tinge of distress in his voice. "But, after all, the sooner it's over with the better, I reckon. I was trying to muster up enough courage to speak to you about it this afternoon, but I felt too hanged bad even to get started."

Jack became alarmed.

"I've noticed that you seemed anything but happy lately, Alec," he hastened to say, as he threw an arm across the shoulders of the pitcher, "and it began to bother me a heap; because I know a pitcher can hardly deliver his best goods unless he's feeling as fit as a fiddle. What's gone wrong? I hope you're not feeling sick, or anything like that?"

Alec swallowed hard before starting to make answer to this question.

"Never felt better in my whole life, Jack, so far as my body goes; and, if I do say it myself, I firmly believe I'd be able to do better work on Saturday than any of you have ever seen me give. But I'm in a peck of trouble at home, and I'm terribly afraid that I won't be able to pitch again for Chester."

"How is that, Alec!" asked the other, solicitously.

"Why, I may not be living in the town on Saturday, you see, and one of the rules of our match games is that every player shall be a resident of the town his club represents. My folks are going to move to Harmony on Friday, sure!"

"That's bad for us, Alec," admitted Jack, his heart sinking as he remembered how ineffectual McGuffey had been in the box even while Chester was scoring against the Harmony man; and with Hendrix sending his puzzling shoots over, defeat was positive for Chester unless they had Donohue to depend on. "Tell me how it happens, will you?"

"Why, my father lost his job a few weeks back, being sick for a spell. He doesn't seem able to strike anything here, but is promised a good job up in Harmony on condition that he moves there right away, so he can start in Saturday. And, Jack, he said this morning that much as he hated to leave town, there wasn't any other way out; so we're going the day after tomorrow. I knew I'd have to tell you, but, say, every time I tried to speak it seemed like I'd choke."

It was a time for quick thinking with Jack.

"I wish you could hold this off for just twenty-four hours, Alec," he told the other. "Perhaps I may find a way out long before then. Could you promise me that?"

"Sure thing, Jack, and believe me I'd be mighty happy if only you did run across a way of bridging this trouble. But we're out of money at home, and jobs don't seem to be floating around in Chester, at least for men as old as my dad."

"Would you mind telling me what he was promised over at Harmony?" continued the other, at which question Alec started, and looked eagerly at him.

"Why, you see, all my dad's fit for these days, with his rheumatism bothering him, is a job as night watchman in some factory or mill. That was what he has been promised in Harmony."

"And what wages does he expect to draw down, Alec? I'm not asking from any curiosity, remember, but I ought to know if I'm going to try to get your father a position here in his old town where he's known so well and respected; and where his eldest son is making such a name for himself as a sterling baseball player."

"He is promised twenty-one a week, Jack. You see, in these times wages have all gone up to meet the high cost of living. Time was when he only got fifteen per. I reckon now, it's your plan to interview some of the gentlemen who are interested in baseball, and that you hope they'll consent to give my dad a steady job so as to keep the Donohue family in Chester. Well, here's hoping you strike luck, Jack. If you do I'll be the happiest boy in Chester tonight, and ready to pitch my arm off Saturday so as to bring another Harmony scalp home."

They shook hands heartily, and then Jack scurried away. It was one of his cardinal principles never to delay when he had anything of importance on his hands. So a short time later he entered one of the big hives of industry that was managed by Mr. Charles Taft, a middle-aged gentleman who seemed greatly interested in the rise of boys' sports in Chester, and who had already favored Jack on several occasions.

It was partly through his generosity that the team had been able to secure suits and outfits in the way of bats, balls, bases, and such things, when the season began. More than that, it was this same Mr. Taft who had gladly agreed to let one of his workers have an occasional afternoon off duty when his services were required to coach the struggling ball players, sadly in need of professional advice and encouragement.

When the boy was ushered into his private office, the stout gentleman held out his hand, and smiled pleasantly. He was a great and constant admirer of Jack Winters, because he could read frankness, honesty, determination to succeed, and many other admirable traits in the boy's face. In fact, Mr. Taft had been quite an athlete himself when at college, and his interest in clean sport had never flagged even when he took up serious tasks in the business world.

"Glad to see you, my boy," he observed, in his customary genial fashion, as he squeezed Jack's hand. "What can I do for you today? How is the team getting along after that glorious game you played? No press of business is going to prevent one man I know of in Chester from attending the game next Saturday. I hope you are not in any trouble, Jack?"

Evidently his quick eye had noted the slight cloud on the boy's face, an unusual circumstance in connection with the captain of the nine.

"Yes, I am in a peck of trouble, sir," candidly confessed Jack. "The fact of the matter is it looks as though, we might be short our wonderful young pitcher, Alec Donohue, next Saturday."

"How's that, Jack?" demanded the gentleman, anxiously. "I'm greatly interested in that lad's work. He certainly has the making of a great pitcher in him. Why, if we lose Donohue, I'm afraid the cake will be dough with us, for I hear Hendrix is in excellent shape, and declares he will pitch the game of his life when next he faces your crowd."

"I'll tell you what the matter is, sir," and with that Jack plunged into a brief exposition of the Donohue family troubles.

As he proceeded, he saw with kindling joy that a beaming smile had commenced to creep over the rosy countenance of the one-time college athlete. This encouraged him to state how a wild hope had arisen in his heart that possibly some job might be found for Mr. Donohue that would keep the family in Chester right along.

"We need him the worst kind, Mr. Taft," he concluded. "If Alec quits us cold I'm afraid it's bound to set all our fine schemes for athletics in Chester back a peg or two. This seems to be a most critical time with us. If we win that game we're going to make many new friends around here, who will assist us in getting that club-house we've been talking about, and putting athletic sports on a sound footing in our town."

"Make your mind easy, Jack, my boy," said the stout gentleman, with a nod, "Alec will toss for us next Saturday, because we won't allow the Donohue family to shake the dust of Chester off their shoes. Why, it happens that my night watchman has just given notice that he must throw up his job because he has taken a position in one of those munition works in another town, where they pay such big wages for men who know certain things. So consider that I offer Donohue the position at twenty-four dollars a week; and there's no reason why it shouldn't be a permanent job, as I understand he's a reliable watchman."

Jack could hardly speak for happiness. The tears actually came in his eyes as he wrung the hand of the gentleman.

"Oh! you don't know how happy you've made me by saying that, Mr. Taft," he managed to declare. "And have I permission to go over to the Donohue home with that glorious news right away?"

"Suit yourself about that, son. Tell him to come around tomorrow and see me; but that the job is his right now. And also tell Alec from me that Chester expects him to fool those heavy hitters of Harmony to the top of his bent, when he faces Hutchings, Clifford, Oldsmith, O'Leary and the rest."

When Jack went out of that office his heart was singing with joy. The clouds had rolled away once more, and the future looked particularly bright. He only hoped it would be an augury of success in store for the Chester nine in their coming battle.



CHAPTER XII

ONE TROUBLE AFTER ANOTHER

"Ting-a-ling!"

The telephone bell in Jack's home was ringing just as the boy passed through the hall on Thursday morning around ten. He had been busily engaged in matters at home, and not gone out up to then. As he held his ear to the receiver he caught the well-known voice of Toby Hopkins.

"That you, Jack?"

"No one else; and what's going on over at your house?" Jack replied. "I thought for sure you'd have been across before now, if only to learn how I came out with that Donohue trouble."

"Oh! I would have been starting you up at daybreak this morning, Jack, only it happens that I learned the good news last night."

"How was that?" demanded the other; "did you walk over to their place to ask Alec about it?"

"I went over to offer Mr. Donohue a job in the Cameron mill tending a plane, only to have him tell me with a happy look in his eyes that he had already taken a position as night watchman with the foundry and rolling mill people, meaning Mr. Taft, your special friend and backer. So I knew you had been busy as well as myself. But you can tell me all about it, and what the Donohues said, when you join me inside of five minutes; because I'm coming over in our tin-Lizzie to take you on a little jaunt with me."

"But I don't believe I ought to go off just now," expostulated Jack; "because I've got a number of things to see to; and besides, we must be out to practice again this afternoon."

"Rats! you've got plenty of time for all that," snorted Toby, who evidently would not take no for an answer when once his heart was set on a thing. "And, besides, it happens that I'm heading for Harmony this time, on some business for dad. We can come back by the road that finally skirts the lake shore. I heard some of the fellows say they meant to go swimming this morning, and we'll like as not come across them in the act, perhaps have a dip ourselves for diversion. Say you'll go, Jack?"

It was a very alluring programme for a boy who loved the open as much as Jack did. His scruples vanished like the mist before the morning sun.

"All right, then, Toby," he went on to say; "I'll go with you, because we can kill two birds with one stone. It happens that I'd like to have a chat with Martin, the Harmony captain. There are several things we ought to settle before we meet on the diamond Saturday afternoon. I'll be ready for you when you come around with your antique chariot."

"It isn't good taste to look a gift-horse in the mouth, Jack; and you ought to know that same flivver can show her heels to many a more pretentious car when on the road. So-long, then. See you in five minutes!"

Toby was as good as his word, and the car stopped before Jack's gate with much honking of the claxon. Once they were off of course Toby demanded that his companion relate his experiences of the preceding afternoon, when he interviewed the affable manager of the big rolling mills, and secured that offer of a good job for Mr. Donohue, calculated to keep their wonderful wizard of a pitcher on the roll-call of the Chester baseball team.

"Of course," said Jack, in conclusion, "when I got to Alec's place and told them what good news I was fetching, they were all mighty well pleased. I thought Alec would certainly have a fit, he danced around so. And take it from me, Toby, that boy will show the Harmony players some wonderful tricks from his box when they face him again, because he's feeling simply immense. When a pitcher is in the pink of condition, he can make the heaviest sluggers feed from his hand; and Alec certainly has a bunch of shoots that run all the way from speed, curves, drops, and several others that, for one, I never before heard of. Now tell me about your offer of a job."

Toby laughed softly.

"Well, you see, Jack, I just knew what you'd be up to, and says I to myself, it'd be a bully thing if I could beat Jack out for just once. So I humped myself and ran around to see Joe Cameron, who happens to be a distant relative of my mother, you remember. He wanted to help me, but at first couldn't see any way where he could make use of a man like Donohue, at least at living wages. But I pleaded so hard, that in the end he remembered a certain place that was vacant. True, it only paid fifteen a week, but he placed it at my disposal. And so after supper I ran around to see if Donohue wouldn't consent to fill that job, through the summer, or until a better one showed up. But I was tickled when Alec told me about your stunt."

Chatting as they rode along, they were not long in reaching Harmony. This town was somewhat larger than Chester, though the latter did more business when it came to the matter of dollars and cents, on account of the mills and factories along the lake and the river.

Toby soon transacted his errand, which was connected with a business house. Then they made inquiries, and learned that Martin lived on the outskirts of the town, actually on the road they meant to take going home by another route.

"That must be his place yonder!" remarked Toby, presently.

"No doubt about it," laughed Jack, "for you can see that a baseball crank lives in that big house with the extensive grounds. Listen to the plunk of a ball landing in a glove, will you. Martin is having a little private practice of a morning on his own account."

"Yes, I can see two fellows passing the ball across the lawn," admitted Toby. "If all the other members of the Harmony team are just as hard at work every hour of daylight, it's mighty evident they mean to be as fit as a fiddle for that big game. They must feel that if they lose, all their good work of the summer will go in the scrap heap."

"I'm glad to know they feel so anxious," chuckled Jack. "It shows how we made them respect our team that last time, when they had their full line-up on deck. We are due for a thrilling game, and don't you forget it, Toby."

When the two boys who were passing the ball so swiftly discovered the stopping flivver, and recognized their morning callers, they hurried out through the gate to shake hands with Jack and Toby. Martin's companion proved to be Hutchings, the efficient first baseman and hard hitter of the locals.

They chatted for some time, Jack making such, inquiries as he had in mind, and being given all the information at the disposal of the other pair.

"About that letter of mine," Captain Martin finally remarked, when the visitors were preparing to depart; "it was a nasty subject to handle, and I hardly knew how to go about it; so finally decided to hit straight out, and tell you what we suspected was going on over here. I was glad to hear from Bailey that you boys took it in just the same spirit it was sent."

"We were in a humor to give you and your fellows a hearty cheer," Jack told him; "we all agreed that it was a genuine pleasure to run up against such a fine bunch of honorable ball players; and believe me, if we can't carry off that game for Chester, we'll not begrudge your crowd for taking it, because we know it will have been fairly won."

It was in this friendly spirit that the rival captains shook hands and parted. Each leader would fight tooth and nail to capture the impending game, using all legitimate means to further his ends; but there would be no hard feelings between the opposing players. Harmony's fine act had rendered this a certainty.

Jack had said nothing about the narrow escape Chester had from a real catastrophe in the loss of their wonderful young pitcher. He thought it best not to mention matters that concerned only Chester folks; although feeling positive that Martin would congratulate him on his success in keeping Alec; for the game would lose much of its interest if only a second-string pitcher officiated in the box for either side when they anticipated showing their best goods.

"He's all wool, and a yard wide, that Martin," asserted Toby, after they had turned their faces toward home again, and were booming along the road that presently would take them close to the shore of Lake Constance.

"There's no doubt about his being a good fellow," agreed Jack; "and it's certainly a real pleasure to go up against such a crowd. For one, I've underestimated the Harmony boys. We've heard a lot about their noisy ways and hustle, but, after all, I think most of it's on the surface, and deeper down they're just as much gentlemen as you'd find anywhere. Most games of rivalry are won through aggressiveness, and plenty of fellows cultivate that mode of playing. It doesn't follow that such chaps are boors, or clowns, or brawlers off the field. We could stand a little more of that sort of thing ourselves, to tell you the truth, Toby—standing on our toes, and keeping wide awake every second of the time play is on."

"Right you are, Jack, and after this I'm going to whoop it up a lot more'n I've ever done before. You'll see some hopping to beat the band, too. I've managed to cover a good deal of territory up to now but, say, I aspire to do still better. I'm rubbing snake oil on my joints right along so as to make 'em more supple. Why, I'd bathe in it if I thought that would make me better able to do my part toward corraling that great game for Chester."

"There, I had a first glimpse of Lake Constance," remarked Jack. "The trees have closed the vista again, so you can't catch it; but I suppose we'll soon come to a place where we'll have the water on our left, and the road even runs along close to the edge. I remember skating up about this far last February, soon after I arrived in Chester; and the lake was then a solid sheet of smooth ice."

"Queer how cold the water stays all summer," mused Toby. "There are times when I've seen boys shivering in July and August while bathing. It's fed by springs, they say, though Paradise River also empties into the lake. There, now you can see away across to the other shore, Jack. Isn't it a bully sheet of water, though?"

"What dandy times we can have next winter iceboating, skating, playing hockey, and everything like that," suggested Jack, delightedly, as his eyes feasted on the immense body of fresh water, with its surface just rippled in the soft summer breeze.

"We'll soon come to where the boys said they meant to go in swimming this morning," added Toby. "It's a perfect day, too, even if the sun does feel hot. Just such a day as this when I got that nasty little cramp in the cold water of the lake, and might have had a serious time only for Big Bob Jeffries taking me on his back and carrying me like a baby to the shore."

"Listen!" exclaimed Jack just then, "what's all that yell going on ahead of us? The boys must be cutting up capers; and yet it strikes me there's a note of fear in their shouts. Turn on the juice, Toby, and eat up the road! Something terrible may be happening, you know. Things keep following each other these days like sheep going over a fence after their leader!"

Toby made the flivver fairly bound along, such was his eagerness to arrive at the scene of all the excitement. Twenty seconds later he gave a loud cry.

"Look, Jack, there's some one floundering out there, and throwing up his arms. It's our Joel Jackman, I do believe! and great Caesar! he's got a cramp and is drowning!"



CHAPTER XIII

WHEN THE CRAMP SEIZED JOEL

What the excited Toby had just said in thrilling tones was undoubtedly the truth. There was no "fooling" about the frantic actions of the boy who was struggling so desperately out in the lake. He was threshing the water furiously, now vanishing partly underneath, only to come up again in a whirl of bubbles.

When a cramp seizes any one, no matter if he should happen to be a champion in the art of swimming, he is always in mortal peril of his life, especially should he be at some distance from the shore, and in deep water. It almost paralyzes every muscle, and the strongest becomes like a very babe in its spasmodic clutch.

Joel Jackman was long-legged and thin, but had always been reckoned one of those wiry sort of chaps, built on the order of a greyhound. He could run like the wind, and jump higher than any fellow in all Chester, barring none. But when that awful cramp seized him in the cold water of Lake Constance, lie found himself unable to make any progress toward shore, distant at least fifty feet.

It was all he could do to keep his head above water, struggling as he was with the fear of a terrible death before his eyes. His two comrades were running up and down on the shore; not that they were such arrant cowards but what they would have been willing to do almost anything to help Joel; but unfortunately they had lost their heads in the sudden shock; and as Toby afterwards contemptuously said, "acted like so many chickens after the ax had done its foul work."

Jack sized up the situation like a flash.

"Toby, you get one of those boards over yonder, and come out to help me if I'm in trouble, understand?" he jerked out, even as the flivver came to a sudden stop, and he was bounding over the side regardless of any exit.

"All right, Jack; you bet I will!" Toby shouted, following suit.

Jack began to shed his outer clothes as he ran swiftly forward. First his cap went, and then his coat. He had low shoes on so that he was able to detach them with a couple of quick jerks, and at the loss of the laces.

Two seconds, when at the verge of the water, sufficed for him to get rid of his trousers, and then, he went in with a rush.

Toby meanwhile had tried to follow suit even as he made for the boards in question. It had been just like Jack to glimpse these in the beginning, while those other fellows apparently did not know a board was within half a mile.

Seeing what Toby meant to do, the two swimmers followed suit, so that presently the whole three of them had each picked up a plank, and were pushing out with it.

Jack had plunged ahead, swimming in any old way, since his one object just then was speed, and not style. He could not have done better had he been up against a swarm of rivals working for a prize. Well, there was a prize dangling there in plain sight. A precious human life was at stake, and unless he could arrive in time poor Joel might go down, never to come up again in his senses.

He had already been under once, and through his desperate efforts succeeded in reaching the surface of the agitated water again. Even as Jack started swimming, after getting in up to his neck, the drowning boy vanished again.

Jack swam on, trying to increase his pace, if such a thing were possible. He must get on the spot without the waste of a second. Joel would likely come to the surface again, but battling more feebly against the threatening fate. If he went down a third time it would be all over but the funeral, Jack knew.

He was more than two-thirds of the way there when to his ecstatic joy he once more discovered the head of Joel. The boy was still making a gallant fight, but under a fearful handicap.

Jack shouted hoarsely as he swam onward:

"Keep fighting, Joel! We'll get you, old chap! Strike out as hard as you can! You're all right, I tell you, only don't stop working!"

Perhaps these cheering words did help Joel to continue his weakening efforts to keep himself afloat. Possibly had it not been for his hearing Jack's voice raised in encouragement, he might have given up the ghost before then.

Nearer Jack surged, his heart seeming to be in his throat with dread lest Joel go down again a few seconds before he could get within touch. The three boys with the boards were also coming along in a solid bunch, although of course with less speed than Jack showed, owing partly to the fact that they had to shove the planks before them.

Now, Joel, with a last despairing gurgle was sinking again, and for the very last time, being utterly exhausted by his frantic struggles, and the terrible pain occasioned by the cramp.

But Jack knew he had arrived close enough to dart forward and clutch his comrade before the other could quite vanish from view. Joel was so far gone that he did not try to grip his rescuer, as most drowning persons will do in their frantic desire to save themselves at any cost.

Jack tried to keep the boy's head above water as best he could. He made no effort to swim towards the shore. What was the use when the other fellows were coming along with their boards. The one thing necessary just then was to prevent Joel from swallowing any more water; he had already no doubt gulped in huge quantities, and lost the ability to breathe properly.

So Toby and the other two found them when they finally arrived. The planks were arranged so that Joel could be raised and sustained by their means; after which the little procession of swimmers headed for the bank.

When they arrived, Joel was lifted out of the water and carried tenderly up to a patch of green sward lying in the shade of a wide-branching oak. Here they laid him down on his chest, while Jack proceeded to work over him, instructing the other fellows just what they were to do to assist.

He knelt astride with one knee on either side of Joel's body, and commenced pressing down regularly on the small of his back, so as to induce an artificial respiration. At the same time, Toby and one of the other fellows worked the unconscious boy's arms back and forth like a pair of pistons; while the third fellow started to rub his cold lower extremities.

At first Joel seemed pretty far gone, and his appearance sent a chill through the sympathetic heart of Toby Hopkins. But after they had kept up this vigorous treatment for a little while, there were signs of returning animation. Joel belched out a gallon of water, Toby always insisted, and inside of ten minutes was able to talk, though Jack insisted on keeping up the rubbing until the boy's body was a rosy hue from the irritation.

"Now get some clothes on, Joel, and you'll soon be feeling prime," he told the other, whose lips were still blue and quivering.

Joel had had quite enough of swimming for one day. Indeed, he would be pretty cautious about getting any distance away from the shore after that, having received a most fearful shock. Still, boys recover from such things, given a little time, and Joel had always been reckoned a fellow who did not know the meaning of the word "fear."

The other boys had apparently lost the joy of bathing for that day. They, too, started to don their clothes, and begged Toby to "hold up," so that they might get a lift to town in the flivver; which, being a whole-souled fellow, of course, "Hop" was only too glad to do.

Later on, after arriving home, Jack and Toby talked matters over between themselves. This new and entirely unexpected happening had been only another link in the growing chain of troubles hanging over the head of the captain of the Chester baseball team.

"What if we hadn't chanced to be on the road just at that very minute, Jack?" ventured Toby, with a shiver; "poor old Joel would certainly have been drowned, because neither Frank nor Rufus had the slightest idea what to do so as to save him. And that would have broken up our combination in the nine, all right, because we'd find it hard to replace such a runner and fielder and batter as Joel."

"Of course," said Jack, "the worst thing of all would be losing a friend. Joel is a mighty fine all-around fellow, and most of us are fond of him. And just as you say, the game would like as not have to be postponed, because how could we play as we would want to with a chum lying dead at home? So I'm grateful because we did chance to be Johnny-on-the-spot."

"That was sure a great job you did, Jack, believe me; and when I say such a thing I'm not meaning to throw bouquets either. Whee! but you did shoot through the water like a fish. I've watched a pickerel dart at a minnow, but no slinker ever had the bulge on you that time."

"I had to get along with all sail set," Jack told him, with a smile, for it is always pleasant to have a friend hand out a meed of praise, even to the most modest boy going. "I knew Joel was at the last gasp, and even a second lost might mean he'd go down for the third time before I could get there. And yet do you know, Toby, it seemed to me right then and there as if I had a ton of lead fastened to me. Why, I felt as though something was holding me back, just as you know the nightmare grips you usually. But when I was within striking distance, I knew I could save Joel. He made a gallant fight, and deserves a lot of praise."

"I wonder what we'll have happen next, Jack? Seems to me not a day passes but you've got to play the rescue act with some member of our team. There was Fred worrying you, and still acting queer; then along comes Donohue threatening to give us the slip because his folks meant to move out of town, and he couldn't pitch unless he lived in Chester. Now, as if those things didn't count up enough to keep you awake nights, old Joel had to go and try to kick the bucket, and force you to yank him out of the lake."

Jack laughed and shook his head.

"It's hard to tell what another day may bring forth, Toby," he went on to say. "Remember, this is only Thursday, and Friday is said to be a very unlucky day in some people's lives, especially when it falls on the thirteenth of the month, as happens this year. There are still a few fellows in the nine who haven't shown up yet in the catastrophe ward. Why, Toby, it might even be you who'll wave the flag and call out for help."

"I give you my affidavit, Jack, that I'm going to play mighty safe from now on. No fishing or swimming for me, and I'll even run that old flivver at slow speed, for fear it takes a notion to land me in a ditch, and come in on top of me. But I hope, Jack, you're not getting discouraged with all these things coming right along?"

"I might, Toby, if I were not built on a stubborn line. We'll go to Harmony on Saturday and make a fight for that game even if we have to lug along a crippled nine, some of them on crutches!"

Toby brightened up on hearing the leader grimly say this.

"That's the sort of stuff, Jack!" he exclaimed, slapping his chum on the back.

"In the bright lexicon of youth there is no such word as fail! We'll go forth with our hearts set on victory, and that's one half of the battle. Hurrah! for Chester!"



CHAPTER XIV

A NIGHT ALARM

Before the two boys parted that afternoon, after the practice of the whole regular nine, barring Joel, who, taking Jack's advice, laid off for one occasion, Joel had asked the captain to drop over when he had finished his supper.

"I want to see you about a number of things," he had told Jack; "not so much in connection with the game we're scheduled to play, as other affairs looking to the ambitious programme we've mapped out for Chester boys the rest of the summer, in the fall, and even up to winter. For one thing, I'd like to give you a few pointers about the fellows in our crowd, so that you can size them up for the football squad later on."

That caught Jack in a weak spot.

"I'll go you there, Toby," he hastened to say, "because I've been trying to figure things out along those lines myself. When you're placing men on an eleven, you ought to know their every strong and weak point; and I'm too new a hand here in Chester to be on to such things. So I'll be glad to have you give me points."

Accordingly, he knocked at the Hopkins' door soon after seven that evening, and was immediately admitted by Toby himself. The Hopkins family consisted of Toby's father and mother, and an older son just then away on a trip to the West, as he was attending college, and had been promised this treat if he passed with honors. There was also a very small girl, named Tessie, who naturally was the pet of the household, and in a way to be spoiled by the adoration of her two brothers.

Toby had a den of his own in the upper part of the rambling house. Here just as most boys love to do, he had the walls fairly covered with the burgees of various colleges, all sorts of mementos collected during his outdoor experiences, curios that in Toby's eyes were precious because many of them bore an intimate relation with some little adventure or jolly outing in which he had taken part.

There were also football togs, baseball contraptions, fishing paraphernalia in unlimited abundance, as well as striking illustrations covering the field of sport as seen through the eyes of youth.

But one good thing about it all, you would look in vain for the slightest trace of any vulgar picture; Toby had no love for such so-called sport as prize fighting or any kindred subject.

Here in this adorable den, reflecting the loves of a genuine boy with red blood in his veins, there often assembled a number of lads who always felt very much at home amidst such surroundings; but Toby would allow of no rough-house scuffling in his quarters, to annoy his mother, and get on her nerves. When the fellows dropped in to have a chat and lounge in his easy chairs amidst such exhilarating surroundings they were expected to behave themselves.

Joel had the big lamp lighted. It threw a fine mellow glow over the walls of the den and showed up the myriad of objects with which they were covered. Somehow, Joel always liked his room much better when that royal lamp was burning, for even the most remote corner, seldom pierced by the intercepted rays of the sun, loomed up under its ardent rays.

Here the pair settled down for a long quiet chat. Jack wanted to ask a hundred questions bearing on the boys with whom he had become so intimately associated during the few months since his advent in Chester. Since they had so kindly bestowed the leadership in sports upon him, he wished to be like a wise general and lose no opportunity for learning each boy's individual ability.

Of course he had been keeping close "tabs" on them right along, but then, Toby, who had seen them attempting to play football, for instance, would be able to tell of certain stunts this or that fellow had done that were out of the common. Such points help amazingly in "putting a round man in a round hole." Too often a half-back should be a tackle, or a guard, in order to bring out the very best that is in him.

Then again Toby knew more or less concerning the fighting abilities of the teams in the neighboring towns, Marshall and Harmony in particular. His love for sport had taken Toby to every game within thirty miles he could hear of in contemplation; for if Chester seemed bound to sleep, and decline to enter the lists, a fellow who yearned to indulge in such things must go abroad to satisfy his longings.

So it came about that he was able to give Jack many valuable tips connected with the elevens with whom Chester was apt to come in contact, should they succeed in whipping a team into anything like fair condition.

"Now, after all you've told me about our boys," Jack was saying along after nine o'clock, when he was thinking of starting home, feeling tired after such a strenuous day, "I begin to believe we can get up a squad of football players here capable of putting up a strong game. One thing in our favor is the fact that we have an old athlete like Coach Joe Hooker to show us how to work out greenhorns."

"That's as true as you live," snapped Toby, his face glowing with eagerness, for one of the ambitions of his life seemed in prospect of being fulfilled. "I've never really played football, though of course I can kick, and run, and dodge pretty fairly. But in theory I'm away up in the game. Other fellows are in the same fix; and we'll need a whole lot of practice before we feel justified in going up against any older eleven. Like as not we'll get snowed under; but even if we lose every game this season, it'll give us what we need in the way of experience, and another year we'll show the way."

"There are lots of other outdoor games we'll have to take up in season," continued Jack, thoughtfully. "Once the spirit of sport has gripped the boys of Chester, and they'll be hungry to go into anything that means a test of endurance, skill or pluck."

"I suppose now you've played football before, Jack?" asked the other.

"Well, we had a pretty fair eleven in the city I came from, and I was lucky enough to belong to them," he said modestly. "I don't know that I shone as a star very much, but on the whole, we managed to keep up our end, and last year we pulled off the championship in our section of country."

"What position did you fill?" queried Toby.

"Our captain made a half-back of me," came the answer. "Somehow he seemed to believe I was better suited for that position than a tackle, though I wanted to be in the other place at the start. But it happened there were two sprinters better fitted than I was to hold down the job. So unless I run across a man who seems to show signs of being my superior in the field I've occupied, I suppose I'll continue to play half-back to the end of the chapter."

"Well," remarked Toby, as Jack made out to pick up his cap with the intention of leaving, since the hour was getting late, "one more day, and then what? A whole twenty-four hours for things to happen calculated to bust up our plans, and knock 'em galley-west. I wish, this was Friday night, and nothing serious had come about. We need that big game to make us solid with the people of Chester. It might be hard on poor Harmony, but it would be the making of our town."

"Hearing you say that," chuckled Jack, "makes me think of that story of the old man and his boy's bull-pup."

"I don't know that I've ever heard it, so fire away and tell the yarn, Jack," the other pleaded.

"Why, once a boy had a young bull-pup of which he was very fond. His father also took considerable interest in teaching the dog new tricks. On one occasion the old man was down on his knees trying to make the small dog jump at him, while the boy kept sicking him on. Suddenly the bull-pup made a lunge forward and before the old man could draw back he had gripped him by the nose, and held on like fun. Then the boy, only thinking of how they had succeeded in tempting the small dog, clapped his hands and commenced to dance around, shouting: 'Swing him around, dad, swing him every which way! It's hard on you, of course, but I tell you it'll be the making of the pup!'"

Toby laughed as Jack finished the anecdote, which it happened he had never heard before.

"Well, Harmony will be dad, and the bull-pup I know turns out to be Chester, bent on holding through thick and thin to victory. I'm glad you came over, Jack, and if I've been able to hand you out a few pointers we haven't wasted our time."

"I noticed when on the way here that it had clouded up," remarked Jack. "Let's hope we don't get a storm that will compel us to postpone that game. Our boys are in the pink of condition, with so much practice, and might go stale by another week."

"That's another cause for anxiety, then," croaked Toby shrugging his shoulders. "Here, I'll find my cap, and step outdoors with you. My eyes are blinking after so much light, and a breath of fresh air wouldn't go bad."

He had hardly said this than Toby stopped in his tracks.

"Listen, Jack, the fire-alarm bell! There's a blaze starting up, and with so much wind blowing it may mean a big conflagration. Where did I toss that cap of mine?"

"I saw something like a cap behind the rowing-machine over there when I tried it out," observed the other, whose habit of noticing even the smallest things often served him well.

"Just what it is," asserted Toby, after making a wild plunge in the quarter designated; "that's my meanest trait, Jack. Mother tries to break me of it ever so often, but I seem to go back again to the old trick of carelessness. Now come on, and we'll rush out. Already I can hear people beginning to shout."

They went downstairs two at a jump. For once Toby did not think of his mother's nerves. Fires were not so frequent an occurrence in the history of a small city like Chester that a prospective conflagration could be treated lightly.

Once out of the house and they had no difficulty about deciding in which direction the fire lay. Some people, principally boys, were already running full-tilt through the street, and all seemed to be heading in the one direction. At the same time all manner of comments could be heard passing between them as they galloped along, fairly panting.

"It must be the big mill, from the light that's beginning to show up in the sky!" hazarded one boy.

"Shucks! what are you giving us, Sandy!" gasped another. "The mill ain't over in that direction at all. Only cottages lie there, with an occasional haystack belongin' to some garden-truck raiser. Mebbe it might be a barn."

"Just what it is, Tim," a third boy chimed in eagerly. "Hay burns like wildfire you know, and see how red the sky is agettin' now."

Neither Jack nor Toby had thus far ventured to make any sort of guess. No matter what was afire it promised to be a serious affair, with the wind blowing at the rate of twenty miles an hour or more. If it turned out to be a private house some one was likely to be rendered homeless before long.

The bell continued to clang harshly. Chester still clung to the volunteer system of firemen, though there was some talk of purchasing an up-to-date motor truck engine, and hiring a force to be on duty day and night.

"Jack," suddenly called out Toby, "don't you see that we're heading straight for Fred's house. Honest to goodness I believe it's that very cottage afire right now."



CHAPTER XV

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE FIRE

"Hello there, fellows, you're on the job, too, I see!"

That was burly Steve Mullane calling out as he came tearing along in the wake of Jack and Toby. Steve was passionately fond of anything in the line of a fire. He had been known to chase for miles out into the country on learning that some farmer's haystacks and barn were ablaze; though he usually arrived far too late to see anything but the ruins.

"What do you think, Steve," gurgled Toby, "I was just saying I thought it might be Fred Baxter's place."

"Seems like it was around that section of territory anyhow," replied the other, as well as he was able to speak, while exerting himself to the utmost.

Jack made no immediate comment, but he himself was beginning to believe Toby's guess might not be far wrong. It gave him a fresh wrench about the region of his heart to believe this. It would mean another source of trouble for poor Fred, and might in the end eliminate him from the game on Saturday.

All Chester was aroused by this time. When that brazen bell kept clanging away in such a loud fashion people knew that something out of the usual run was taking place. They flocked forth, all hurrying in the same general direction, until the streets were fairly blocked with the crowds.

Now came the engine, driven by an expert member of the fire company, the pair of horses galloping wildly under the whip, and the spur of such general excitement. Loud cheers greeted the advent of the volunteer department. The men looked very brave and heroic with their red firehats, and rubber coats. They would undoubtedly do good work once they got on the ground; but that wind was playing havoc with things, and perhaps after all it might not be possible to save the imperiled building.

All doubts were removed, for on rounding a bend the three boys discovered that it was actually the modest Badger house that was afire. Flames could be seen pouring out of the windows, and a great smoke arose, telling that the whole interior must be heating up, and liable to break into a vast blaze at any minute.

"Whee! it looks bad for Fred's folks, now!" cried Toby, his first thought being of the suffering of those involved.

"It's going to make a dandy fire, all right!" Steve was heard to say to himself; and it was not because he was a heartless boy that this was his first thought, for Steve could be as tender as the next one; only he did dearly love a fire, and on that account was apt to forget how a blaze almost always meant loss for somebody, possibly deadly peril as well.

There was quite a mob of people already on the spot. Some who lived much closer than the three chums had been able to reach the scene of the fire in considerably less time.

Jack was trying to remember what things looked like in the near vicinity of the Badger home. He had been there only once or twice in all, but that habit of observation clung to him, and he was thus able to recollect how he had noticed that some sort of a woodshed stood close to the back of the house. If this held considerable fuel for the kitchen stove, and a fire managed to start in some way, it was just situated right to sweep through the house, being on the windward end.

"Where's Fred and his folks?" asked Toby just then, as they started boy-fashion to elbow their way through the crowd, determined to get in the front rank in order to see everything that transpired.

Jack was himself looking eagerly around, with the same object in view. He remembered the sad face of Fred's little mother, who he feared had seen much of trouble during the later years of her life. It looked as though there might be still more cause for anxiety hovering over her.

"She must be in that bunch of women folks over yonder," asserted Steve. "Yes, I just had a glimpse of that pretty little kid, Fred's sister, Barbara. One of the women is holding the child in her arms, and she's wrapped in bed clothes, which shows she must have been sleeping when the fire broke out."

"I wonder what's happening over where that group of men is standing," remarked Toby, solicitously. "There, a boy has fetched a dipper of water from the well bucket. Why, somebody must have been hurt, Jack."

"Let's make our way over and find out," suggested Steve, quickly.

Accordingly the three boys pushed through the various groups of chattering men, women and children. The firemen had by now managed to get to work, and the first stream of water was playing on the burning house; though every one could see that there was little chance of saving any part of the doomed structure, since the fire fiend had gained such a start.

"What's the matter here?" Jack asked a small boy who came reeling out from the packed crowd, as though unable to look any longer.

"Why, it's Fred Badger!" he told them in his shrill piping tones that could be heard even above the hoarse cries of the fire laddies and the murmur of voices from the surging mob, constantly growing larger as fresh additions arrived.

"What happened to him?" almost savagely asked Steve.

"He was trying to haul some of the furniture out, I heard tell," continued the Chester urchin, "and he got hurted some way. He's lying there like he was dead. I just couldn't stand it any more, that's what."

Filled with horror Jack pushed forward, with his two chums backing him up. What fresh calamity was threatening the Badger family, he asked himself. Poor Fred certainly had quite enough to battle against without being knocked out in this fashion.

When, however, they had managed to press in close enough to see, it was to discover the object of their solicitude sitting up. Fred looked like a "drowned rat," as Toby hastened to remark, almost joyously. Evidently they had emptied the pail of cold water over his head in the effort to revive him, and with more or less success.

Jack was considerably relieved. It was not so bad as he had feared, though Fred certainly looked weak, and next door to helpless.

"I hope he'll not be knocked out from playing that game with us Saturday," Steve took occasion to say.

"Oh! Fred's made of tough stuff," asserted Toby, the wish being father to the thought; "he'll recover all right. I only hope they've got their goods covered by insurance. It'd be pretty rocky if they didn't, let me tell you. Nearly everything is gone, I'm afraid. Fred did manage to drag a little out, but that fire is bound to eat up the balance, no matter what the firemen can do to throw water inside."

Jack suddenly discovered that the man whom he had seen talking with Fred was pushing his way through the group. He acted too as though he might be deeply interested in matters, for he shoved folks aside with an air that would not stand for a refusal to allow him free passage. Toby discovered him at about the identical moment.

"Look who's here, Jack!" he muttered, tugging at the other's coat sleeve. "Now, what under the sun's gone and fetched that duck out here to bother Fred again? We really ought not allow such a thing, Jack. The nerve of the slick sport to push his way in to where Fred lies there."

"Just hold your horses, will you, Toby?" Jack told him. "As yet we don't know anything about that man, who or what life is, and the nature of his business with Fred. There, you see the boy seems to be glad to have him around. Why, the man has gripped his hand. He seems to be a whole lot excited, for he's questioning Fred as if he wanted to make sure everybody was safe out of the cottage."

"I wonder if they are?" remarked Toby. "I've seen little Barbara, and here's our comrade, while I reckon I glimpsed Mrs. Badger over there among those women; but how about the crippled girl, Jack? Anybody seen her around?"

A fresh thrill seized Jack's heart in a grip of ice. Of course it was almost silly to suspect that the cripple could have been forgotten in all the excitement; but anything is liable to happen at a fire, where most people lose their heads, and do things they would call absurd at another time.

"Fred would be apt to know, I should think," suggested Steve, anxiously, casting an apprehensive glance in the direction of the burning house, and mentally calculating just what chance any one still inside those walls would have of coming out alive.

"Unless he was rattled in the bargain," said Jack. "Lots of people leave things for others to do. Fred may have thought his mother would fetch Lucy out; and on her part she took it for granted Fred had taken care of his sister the first thing."

"Gee whiz! I wonder, could that happen, and the poor thing be in there right now," Toby exclaimed, looking horrified at the idea.

"Listen to all that squealing over among the women, will you?" Steve was saying.

Indeed, a fresh outburst of feminine cries could be heard. Apparently something had happened to give the women new cause for fright. Some of those around Fred turned to look. They could see the women running this way and that like a colony of bees that has been disturbed.

"They certain sure act like they might be looking for somebody!" asserted Toby. "See how they ask questions of everyone they meet. Jack, do you think Fred's mother could have just learned that something had happened to her boy; or would it be Lucy they miss for the first time?"

"We'll soon know," said Jack, firmly, "because here comes one of the women running this way like a frightened rabbit."

Eagerly, and with their pulses bounding like mad, they awaited the arrival of the woman. Many others had also turned to greet her, sensing some fresh calamity, before which even the burning of the poor widow's cottage would sink into insignificance.

"Is she here, men?" gasped the woman, almost out of breath. "Have any of you seen Lucy Badger? We can't find her anywhere. Is that Fred there on the ground? He ought to know, because his mother says he must have taken his sister from the house."

They all turned toward Fred. He still sat there looking white and weak, though he was evidently recovering by degrees from his swoon after being hit on the head by some falling object. He looked up in sudden anxiety as he heard the woman speaking.

"What's the matter, Mrs. Moody?" he asked, trying to get on his knees, though the effort was almost too much for his strength. "What's that you said about my sister Lucy? Oh! isn't she with mother and Barbara? I thought sure I saw her in the crowd while I was working trying to save some of the furniture mother valued."

"We can't find the girl anywhere!" the woman cried, in anguish, "and perhaps she's still in there, stupefied by the smoke, and unable to save herself, poor, poor thing. Oh! somebody must try to find out if it's so. Fred, are you able to make the attempt?"

Poor Fred fell back on his knees. His powers of recuperation did not seem equal to the demand. He groaned miserably on discovering how unable he was to doing what in his manly heart he believed to be his solemn duty.

Jack was about to take it upon himself to attempt the dangerous role when to his astonishment the mysterious stranger sprang up, and made a thrilling announcement.



CHAPTER XVI

A STARTLING DISCLOSURE

"Let me try to save the child; it is no more than right that I should be the one to risk his life!"

Possibly some of the men might have laid hands on the stranger and prevented his attempting such a rash act, for with the house so filled with smoke and flame it seemed next door to madness for any one to brave the peril that lay in wait. He managed to elude them, however, and to the astonishment of the three boys in particular, plunged recklessly through the door where vast columns of smoke could be seen pouring forth.

Apparently one of the valiant firemen might have been better fitted for this dangerous duty than a gentleman of his calibre. Jack was tempted to follow after the stranger, but the firemen had formed a line in front of the entrance, and by their manner announced that no second fool would be allowed to take his life in his hands by entering that blazing building.

Just then Mrs. Baxter came staggering up. She must have seen the little episode, and suspected strongly that the one who had gone in was her own boy Fred, unable to hold himself in check after learning that his poor sister was in all probability still within the cottage.

Some of the men caught her as she was trying to rush toward the door, holding out her arms entreatingly. The boys understood when they heard her crying:

"Oh! why did you let him go in there? Was it not enough that I should lose one of my children, but now I am doubly bereft! Fred, Fred, come back to me!"

"Mother, see here I am!" called the boy, this time managing to regain his feet, though he swayed unsteadily, and might have fallen in his weakness only for Jack, who quickly put a sustaining arm around him.

Mrs. Badger turned swiftly and with a look of new-born joy on her strained features. Another instant and she had darted forward and embraced Fred. The poor woman was almost frantic with mingled emotions, nor could any one blame her for giving way to weeping as she hugged Fred.

"Oh! I was sure it must be you, my son, and I feared I should never see either of you again!" she cried, passionately.

"I wanted to go, mother," he told her, soothingly, "but I couldn't stand alone. You see, I was struck on the head and knocked out, so I'm feeling as weak as a kitten."

"But Lucy?" wailed the poor woman.

"Try to calm yourself, mother," urged Fred, stoutly. "If she is in there still he may yet be in time to save her, with the aid of Providence."

"But tell me who was so ready to take his own life in his hands, so as to try and save my child for me?" she went on, almost hysterically. "Oh! I shall never cease to remember him for a noble man in my prayers. What neighbor could have been such a Good Samaritan to me and mine!"

"It was the stranger, Mrs. Badger!" said one of the men close by, and Jack, as well as Toby listened eagerly for what was coming.

"Yes, a party who's been hanging around town for a week or more, stopping at the Eureka House," added another of the citizens, who apparently had noticed the presence of the guest in question, and even speculated as to his object in staying so long in Chester, where there were no special summer attractions outside of the beautiful lake near by.

"And he seemed to have lots of money in the bargain," a third went on to say, as he eyed the burning house as though wondering greatly why a stranger would accept such grave risks for people whom he could never have seen before.

"Mebbe I might throw a little light on this thing," said another man, eagerly. "I happened to get in conversation with the party at one time. He goes by the name of Smith at the hotel. He told me he'd been pretty much of a wanderer, and had seen most of the world. But among other things he said was that once on a time he had been a fireman. He even showed me a scar that he said reminded him of a night when he nigh lost his life in a big blaze. So you see he's right in his line when he goes into a burning building to effect a rescue!"

Jack was picking up points as he listened to these things so hurriedly said. He turned to see what effect they had upon Fred and his mother. The woman seemed more bewildered than ever. Evidently she could not understand why a total stranger should risk his life for her child when so many of her neighbors stood around; unless it might be the old fever still burned in Smith's veins, and he could not resist the lure of the crackling flames that seemed to be defying him.

Fred, however, did not look at all puzzled. There was an eager light in his eyes that Jack began to understand. Fred knew something that his mother was utterly ignorant of. He had heard those words of hers about remembering the gallant stranger in her prayers with considerable emotion. Jack even thought the expression written on the face of the boy might spell delight.

"But even if he had at one time been a fire-fighter in the city," Mrs. Badger kept on saying, wonderingly, "why should he be so eager to throw away his life in my service. What could a poor woman and her crippled child be to him?"

Then Fred, unable longer to keep his wonderful secret, burst out:

"Oh! mother, don't you know, can't you guess who he is? Why, it's only right he should be the one to save our poor Lucy, or perish in the attempt; because this is the great chance he's been praying would come, so he could prove to you that he has redeemed the past. Mother, surely now you know who he is?"

She stared at him as though bewildered. Then her eyes again sought the burning building into which the stranger had plunged, bent on his mission of mercy. By now the staggering truth must have forced itself into her groping mind, for she suddenly caught hold of Fred again, and hugged him passionately.

"It must be the mysterious ways of Heaven!" Jack heard her say. "Tell me, boy, do you mean that it is——"

"Yes, my father!" Fred said, "and for a whole week and more I have known about his being here. He wanted to wait until I could get up courage enough to break the news to you. He has changed, mother, oh! so much, and made a fortune honestly in the mines, just to show you that the past has been wiped out. And surely this last act of his proves it."

The poor woman sank on her knees. Jack could see her lips move, though of course he was unable to catch a single word she uttered; but he felt positive she was sending up a prayer of gratitude, and beseeching Providence that the precious lives of both father and daughter might be spared through a miracle.

It was all as clear as daylight to Jack now. He could easily understand how at some time in the past, while the Badgers lived in another town, the husband and father had fallen into evil ways, almost breaking his wife's heart. Finally he had possibly been forced to flee from the law, which he may have broken while under the influence of liquor. And all through the years that had come and gone they had never heard of him again, so that she felt she had a right to call herself a widow.

Then one day had come this stranger to Chester, whom Fred must have met, to learn that the other was his own father. He doubtless had been old enough to understand how cruelly his beloved mother had been treated in the past, and it took time to make the boy believe in the protestations of the prodigal father. As the days passed he saw the other frequently, and was gradually coming to believe that his reformation had been sincere.

All the while Mr. Badger had been afraid lest his wife refuse to forgive him, and receive him. From afar he had taken to watching the humble cottage home in which his dear ones dwelt, and doubtless each day saw his yearning to embrace them grow stronger.

Why, Jack could easily understand now his peculiar actions at the time he stood leaning on the picket fence, and watching; also why he should seek to hold the trusting little hand of pretty Barbara as he walked at her side. He would doubtless have given worlds just then for the privilege of clasping the child in his arms and straining her to his heart, but he did not dare, lest she repulse him.

It was simply grand, and Jack's heart beat tumultuously as he watched Mrs. Badger praying for the safety of little Lucy, yes, and also for the life of the man whom she had for years been trying to put out of her mind as utterly unworthy of remembrance.

Just then in the light of his noble sacrifice she undoubtedly forgot all the misery he had caused her during their married life, and could only think of him as he had appeared during their courtship, when she believed him the best of his sex.

It would be all right, Jack believed, if only Mr. Badger might find his Lucy, and be able to save her life. His wife would be only too ready and willing to let the bitter past sink into oblivion, and begin life anew, in her belief in his reformation.

So all interest now hung over the burning cottage. Somewhere inside those doomed walls the man who had once upon a time in his checkered career served as a fireman on a city force, was groping his way about, seeking to stumble over the unconscious form of the poor little cripple whom the pungent smoke had caused to collapse before she could creep to safety.

His utter ignorance of the interior of the cottage would be against him, Jack feared. He wondered whether a double tragedy might complete this wonderful happening; or would Heaven be so kind as to allow the repentant man to save Lucy, and thus again cement the bonds his wickedness in the past had severed?

The only things in his favor were first of all the fact that he had had much experience along this line of life-saving, and would know just how to go about it; and then again his great enthusiasm might serve to carry him along through difficulties that would have daunted most men.

The firemen could do next to nothing to assist in the rescue. They gathered before the building, and sent several streams of water in at the gaping front door, as if desirous of keeping the flames back as long as possible, and thus affording the stranger a better chance for effecting his purpose.

Already he had been inside for several minutes. Events had occurred with lightning-like rapidity, for Fred and his mother had talked eagerly. To Jack, however, it seemed as though a quarter of an hour must have elapsed, he was in such a state of suspense. He felt as though he must break through the line of fire fighters and dash into the cottage, to find the pair they knew to be still there amidst that terrible smoke, so dense and suffocating.

Would they ever come out, he kept asking himself, as he strained his eyes while looking. When hope was beginning to fade away Jack heard a shout that thrilled him to the core, and made him pluck up new courage.



CHAPTER XVII

FRED RENEWS HIS PLEDGE

"There he is!"

It was this thrilling cry that broke out above the noise of the crackling flames, the spatter of rushing water, and the murmur of many voices.

"And he's got the child with him!" another sharp-eyed onlooker shouted exultantly; for although they knew nothing of the tie that bound the stranger to the crippled girl he had gone to save, they could appreciate the heroism at its true value, and were ready to honor the other for his brave deed.

Staggering forth from the building came the man. He utterly disdained any assistance from the ready firemen, lost in admiration for his courage. They might have deemed him next-door to a fool when he dashed into the building, but now in the light of his astonishing success he was a hero.

Mrs. Badger gave a thrilling cry, and advanced toward the man who bore the cripple in his arms. He was a pitiable sight, for most of his beard and hair had been scorched, and in places doubtless he had received burns more or less serious; but he paid no attention to such things.

"Here is your darling child, Mary; I saved her for you!"

Hardly had Mrs. Badger taken the unconscious girl in her arms when the man sank down at her feet in a dead faint. He had held up through everything until he was able to effect his purpose, and then Nature could stand no more.

Jack bent over him and called for water. He sincerely hoped that it might not be so serious as he feared. The experienced fire-fighter would have known better than to have inhaled any of the flame as he passed through; and apparently from the condition of his clothes he could not have been very seriously burned.

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