"The greatest ever," returned Phil. "If they can only keep it up——"
"You'll do your part, all right," assured Roger. "Every fellow can't hit you the way those three did. Now, boys, we'll lead off with the head of the list. Let's get after Sanger again."
But apparently Sanger had recovered his best form during the brief rest on the bench, for again he fanned Nelson and Barker; and, although Springer hit the ball, it was an easy roller to the Barville twirler himself, who confidently and deliberately tossed Phil out at first.
In the meantime, one or two indignant Oakdaleites had gone at Herbert Rackliff and driven him away from the ropes back of first base, Herbert resenting their remarks concerning his loyalty, and rather warmly asserting that he had a right to bet his money according to the dictates of his judgment.
In the fourth Springer's work justified the confidence Eliot had expressed, for he followed Sanger's example by striking out Pratt and Whiting and forcing the dangerous Copley to hit weakly to the infield.
"Another goose egg for them," exulted Chipper Cooper. "It begins to look like a shut-out. These two tallies of ours may be a-plenty."
"You don't want to get any such an idea into your head," returned Eliot promptly. "Two runs are mighty few; we must have more. Here's Old Stone, who started us going before."
Stone started it again with a cracking two-bagger, and, when Eliot poked a daisy cutter into right, Ben scored on it.
The efforts of the coachers to put Sanger off his feet, however, were fruitless, Crane fanning, Grant expiring on a foul which Copley took thirty feet behind the pan, and Cooper perishing in an effort to beat a slow grounder to first.
With the beginning of the fifth Rackliff again called encouragement to the batters, having strolled back to the ropes a little further down beyond first base. He urged them to "get into it," "hit it out," "drop on it," "give it a rise," and, as if braced by his cries, they began slaughtering Springer mercilessly. Sanger singled; Cline poked one past Cooper; and Roberts, once more surprising everybody by smashing the first ball, doubled and brought both runners home.
And now once more Springer's nerves were a-quiver in every part of his body. In his disturbed state he actually swallowed the chew of gum he had procured. Rattled, he hit Berry in the ribs, and handed Dingley a pass, filling the bases.
"It's all off! It's all over but the shouting!" yelled Sanger, dancing and waving his arms on the coaching line near third. "Got him going, fellows! Don't let up! Here's where we win the game!"
A CHANGE OF PITCHERS.
The green banners were fluttering like leaves in a furious tempest; horns, cowbells and human voices sent a wild uproar across the diamond; Springer, white as a sheet, his confidence totally shattered, was all to the bad. Another clean hit would almost certainly permit two Barville runners to score and put the visitors one tally in the lead.
And not a man was out!
Knowing something must be done at once or the game would doubtless be lost in that inning, Eliot threw the ball to Barker, so that Berlin might hold the man on third, and, calling Phil, stepped forward and met him in front of the pan.
"Play ball! play ball!" yelled Sanger. "Don't delay the game!" And, "Play ball! play ball!" howled the Barville spectators.
Coolly, calmly, soothingly, the Oakdale captain spoke in a low tone to the unnerved pitcher. "Brace up, Phil, old fellow," he urged. "Take your time; stop pitching as fast as you can soak the ball over. You're not using your head. If you'll steady down we can pull out of this hole. Now, go slow, and don't mind the racket." For a moment his right hand touched Springer's left shoulder with a steadying pressure.
"I'll try," promised Phil huskily. "I'll do my best, captain."
While the visitors still howled, "Play ball," Roger stood on the plate and fussed with the strap of his catching mask, which did not need any attention whatever to begin with, but somehow became strangely tangled in the wire meshes. From his appearance one might have fancied Eliot stone deaf to that babel of sounds, and he seemed utterly blind when Larkins rushed out from the bench before him, flourishing his arms, and demanding that he should get back into his position and let the game proceed.
Such a show of outward calm should have done much to restore the equanimity of the pitcher; but, though Springer tried hard to get a steadying grip on himself, his fear of what might happen if Pratt hit him led him to pitch himself into a still worse predicament; and he handed up three balls, one after another, in an effort to fool the Barville boy. The shouts of the coachers, urging Pratt to "take a walk" and asserting that it was "a dead sure thing," added in the completion of Phil's undoing; for, even though he did his best to put a straight one over, the ball was outside, and Pratt capered exultantly to first, while Roberts, grinning all over one side of his face, jogged home.
"Take him out!" Some one in the Oakdale crowd uttered the cry, and immediately a dozen others took it up. "Take him out! Take him out!" they adjured.
These appeals were unnecessary, for already Eliot had decided that Phil could not continue, and was beckoning for Grant to come in, a signal which Rodney did not at first seem to comprehend. Presently the Texan started slowly in from the field, and Springer, at the umpire's call of "time," turned, his head drooping, toward the bench.
"Hadn't you better take right, Phil?" suggested Eliot.
The heartsick fellow shook his head. "I wouldn't be any good out there—now," he muttered.
So Tuttle was sent into right, while Grant limbered up his arm a bit by throwing a few to Sile Crane.
"Here's something still easier, fellows," called Newt Copley. "Perhaps he can throw a lasso, but he can't pitch baseball. Keep it up. Don't stop."
"Play!" ordered the umpire.
Rod Grant toed the pitcher's slab for the first time in a real game of baseball, wondering a bit if he was destined to receive a continuation of the unkind treatment that had put "the blanket" on his predecessor.
In the meantime, Herbert Rackliff had been collared by Bunk Lander, a big, husky village boy, whose face was ablaze with wrath and whose manner betrayed an almost irresistible yearning to punch the city youth.
"You keep your trap closed," rasped Lander, "or I'll knock your block off! If you utter another peep during this game, I'll button up both your blinkers so tight it'll take a doctor to pry 'em open. Get that?"
"Take your hands off me!" cried Herbert indignantly. "How dare you!"
"How dast I!" snarled Lander. "I'll show you how I dast if you wag your jaw any more."
"I've got a right to talk; everybody else does."
"You double-faced, sneaking son of a sea-cook!" blazed Lander. "You bet against your own school team, did ye? If you belonged in Barville you might howl your head off; but as long's you camp around these diggin's you won't do no rooting for them fellers. I'm going to keep right on your co't-tail the rest of the time, and the first yip you make I'll hand ye a bunch of fives straight from the shoulder. Now, don't make no further gab to me unless you're thirsting to wear a mark of my esteem for the next few days."
Even as Lander uttered these words Grant pitched the first ball, and Whiting hit it—hit it humming straight into the hands of Chipper Cooper, who snapped it to third for a double play, before Berry could get back to the sack.
What a howl of joyous relief went up from the Oakdale crowd! They cheered Chipper madly, and the little fellow, crimson-faced and happy, grinned as he gave a tug at his cap visor.
But now came the great Copley, the most formidable Barvilleite, and there were still two runners waiting impatiently on the sacks, ready to make the best of any kind of a hit.
"Don't worry about this chap, Grant," called Eliot quietly. "He's just as easy as anybody. You'll get him."
At this Copley laughed sneeringly, but he missed the first ball Rod delivered to him, which happened to be one of the new pitcher's wonderful drops. The uproar coming from the Barville bleachers seemed to have no effect on Grant, something which Eliot observed with satisfaction and rising hope. Rod pitched two balls which Copley disdained, and then he fooled the fellow once more with a drop.
"Two strikes!" shouted the umpire.
"You've got him, Roddy—you've got him cold!" cried Cooper suddenly. "Don't forget we're all behind you. Take his scalp, you old Injun hunter of the Staked Plains."
High and close to Copley's chin the ball whistled into Eliot's mitt. For a moment there seemed some doubt as to its nature, but the umpire pronounced it a "ball."
"Close, Grant—close," said Eliot. "You should have had him. Never mind, you'll get him next time."
There was a hush. Involuntarily, the Barville crowd ceased its uproar. Grant, taking Roger's signal, nodded and twisted the ball into the locking grip of two fingers and a thumb. His arm swung back and whipped forward, a white streak shooting with a twisting motion from those fingers. It seemed like another swift one, shoulder high, and, with confidence strong in his heart, the red-headed batter sought to meet it.
For the third time the ball took a most amazing shoot toward the ground, and again Copley did not even graze it. The umpire shouted, "You're out!" but the roar from Oakdale's side of the field drowned his voice.
WON IN THE NINTH.
The cheer captain was leading them with wildly waving arms. "Grant!" they thundered. "Rah! rah! rah! Grant! Grant! Grant!"
"That sure was some lucky," said Rod, walking toward the bench.
"Lucky!" rejoiced Cooper, jogging at his side. "It was ball playing! It was pitching!"
"You pulled me through by that catch and double play," said the young Texan modestly. "That put me on my pins. I'm sorry Phil got his."
Springer looked disconsolate enough as Rod took a seat beside him on the bench. "Don't worry, old partner," begged Rodney. "It happens to every pitcher sometimes. The best of them get it occasionally. Perhaps I won't last."
"If you don't," returned Springer, "the game is a goner. There's no one else to put in. I gave it away when I lost my control. Queer I couldn't get the ball over."
"I saw that we couldn't keep you in any longer, Phil," said Eliot. "I had to take you out."
"Oh, that's all right," muttered the unhappy fellow. "That's baseball."
With the score tied, Barville showed a disposition to fight grimly for the game. Piper fell a victim to the wiles of Sanger; Nelson's scorching grounder was scooped by Roberts; and away out in left garden Dingley made a brilliant running catch of Barker's splendid long drive. The sixth inning opened with the two teams on even terms and Grant pitching for Oakdale.
Rodney's most effective ball was his drop, but Eliot, knowing it would be poor judgment if the pitcher should use that particular ball too often, called for it only in emergencies. The emergency rose when, with only one man out, Sanger singled and stole second, Nelson dropping Roger's throw. With Sanger playing well off the sack, there was a chance for him to score if Cline banged out a long safety, so Eliot, consulting hastily with Grant, urged Rod to use the drop every time he put the ball over. Cline finally managed to hit one of those drops, but he simply rolled a weak grounder into the diamond, and gave up the ghost on his way to first, Sanger taking third on the throw.
Ready to bat, Len Roberts' gaze wandered toward the spectators back of the ropes near first base; but, if he hoped to receive any encouragement from Herbert Rackliff, he was disappointed, as Bunk Lander, true to his promise, was keeping within arms' length of the irritated and uneasy city youth. Rackliff, having surveyed Bunk's stocky figure from head to foot and taken a good look at the fellow's grim, homely mug, smoked cigarettes and uttered no sound save an occasional suppressed cough.
It would be hard to describe the feelings of Roy Hooker. He had been elated by Springer's misfortune and the success of Barville in tying the score, but the failure of the visitors to get a lead left him still worried and anxious. Especially was this true as he watched Rodney Grant pitch with surprising steadiness and hold the crimson players down.
"But he can't keep it up," thought Roy; "it's impossible. They'll fall on him the way they did on Springer."
Roberts, who had hitherto batted with an air of confidence, now fell into his old trick of waiting, the result being that two strikes were called on him before he removed the bat from his shoulder. Then he bit at a wide one, and was out.
Tuttle, hitting in Springer's place, was a snap for Sanger, who polished him off with three high, swift, straight ones. For the third time in the game, Stone showed his mettle and went to first on a safety. As one man was out, Eliot, thinking to test Copley's throwing, signaled for Ben to steal. There was nothing the matter with Copley's wing, for he nailed Stone fully five feet from the second sack.
Roger batted a sizzler to the left of Sanger, who shot out his gloved hand and deflected the ball straight into the waiting fingers of Larkins at first.
Grant pitched fairly well in the seventh, but it needed the errorless support he received to prevent the enemy from scoring, Barville pushing a runner round to third before being forced to give up.
Sanger, working hard, disposed of Crane on strikes, forced Grant to pop to the infield, and led Cooper into lifting an easy foul for Copley. The red-headed catcher continued to talk to the batters, but, warned by Eliot, they made no retort, and, seemingly, did not hear him. Since the affair with Piper he had not, however, again offered to deflect a bat.
It was a great game to watch, a game in which those high school boys, keyed to a keen tension, were really outdoing themselves, performing more than once feats which would have been creditable to professionals. It was the kind of baseball that makes the blood tingle, the heart throb, and leaves many an enthusiastic spectator husky from howling. The strain was so great that it seemed an assured thing that something must give way. Oakdale had saved herself temporarily by changing pitchers, but shortly after the opening of the eighth inning it began to look as if the fatal downfall of the home team had simply been delayed.
Larkins led off by batting a dust scorcher against Cooper's shins, and once more Chipper marred his record by booting the ball and throwing wild to first when he finally got hold of it. This let the runner romp easily to second.
Copley was seen to whisper something in Sanger's ear as the Barville captain rose from the bench, bat in hand. Then Lee walked into the box and bunted beautifully along the line toward first. He was thrown out by Grant, but his purpose had been accomplished, and Larkins was on third, with only one man down.
Fearing an attempted squeeze play, Eliot signaled for Rod to keep the ball high and close on Cline. Roger had made no mistake in judgment, and, despite the Texan's effort to baffle the hitter, Cline managed to bump a roller into the diamond. Cooper, charging in, scooped the sphere and snapped it underhand to Eliot; for Larkins, having started to dig gravel with the first motion of Grant's arm, was doing his utmost to score.
"Slide!" shrieked the coachers.
Larkins obeyed, and there might have been some dispute over the umpire's decision had not the ball slipped out of Roger's fingers just as he poked it onto the prostrate fellow.
"Safe!" announced the umpire, with a downward motion of his outspread hand.
The coachers capered wildly, while Copley, leaping forward, met Larkins, who had risen, and ostentatiously assisted in brushing some of the dirt from his clothes. The Barville crowd behaved like a bunch from a lunatic asylum. Roy Hooker told himself that Grant must surely go to pieces now. "If Eliot had given me a show," he whispered to himself, "I might go in there now and stop the slaughter."
Apparently the Texan was confused, seeing which, Cline attempted to purloin the sack behind his back, only to be caught easily when Rod turned and snapped the ball to Nelson.
This cheered the sympathizers with the home team, who were heartened still more as, a few moments later, the amazingly calm Texan took the crooked-nosed Roberts in hand and struck him out.
"Now, let's play ball and hold this lead, fellows," shouted Copley. "It's easy enough. We've got the game nailed."
Sanger had no trouble in fanning Piper, and again Oakdale's hope ebbed, as Nelson, who had not made a safety for the day, was sent by the whiff route to join Sleuth on the mourners' bench.
With two gone, Berlin Barker got his first hit. There rose a groan, however, when it was seen that roly-poly Chub Tuttle was the next sticker. Tuttle justified the hopeless ones by popping a dinky little fly into Sanger's hands.
"It's all off! It's all over!" crowed Copley, tossing the catching mask spinning aside. "You've only got to get three more, cap. The way you're pitching, it'll be like picking ripe fruit."
"But let's get some more tallies if we can," urged Sanger.
This, however, was not possible; for Grant gave his prettiest exhibition in the ninth, striking out three fellows in succession with that perplexing drop, which apparently he had mastered.
"This is our last chance, boys," said Eliot, as the locals gathered at the bench. "One run is a small margin, and no game is lost until it's won."
Ben Stone, his face as grim as that of a graven image, stood forth and waited. Two balls he ignored, one of which was called a strike; and then, seeming to get one to his liking, he planted the club against the leather with a sharp, snapping swing. As in practice on the day Hooker had pitched to him, Stone laced the ball straight over the center-field fence for a home run, and pandemonium broke loose and continued while he jogged slowly over the bases.
The score was again tied.
Roy Hooker had not been fully at ease, and his face turned almost ashen as he saw the ball disappearing beyond the fence. He took no part in the crazy demonstration of his schoolmates, declining even when some one caught him by the shoulders and shouted in his ear, asking why he did not cheer.
At the bench Stone was surrounded and congratulated by his delighted teammates. Even the disconsolate Springer aroused himself enough to speak a word of praise.
"We want another one—only one more," said Eliot, as he found a bat and turned toward the plate.
Without seeking to "kill" Sanger's speed, Roger did his best to poke out a safety, and would have succeeded only for a surprising one-handed stop by Roberts, who got the ball to first for an unquestioned put-out.
"It's only a matter of an extra inning," cried Copley. "They've had all their luck; it's over."
Crane, following Eliot, made the mistake of trying for a long hit, and Sanger fanned him.
Grant came up with two men out.
"Here's the great cowboy twirler, cap," sneered Copley. "Put the iron to him. Burn your brand deep."
"Get a hit, Grant—do get a hit!" came the entreaty from the Oakdale crowd.
"If you do," muttered Copley, close under the bat, "I'll swallow the ball."
A moment later Rod swung at a corner cutter, whirled all the way round, and sprang at Copley, a look of such blazing wrath in his eyes that the red-headed catcher retreated with ludicrous haste.
"You onery, sheep-herding skunk!" rasped the Texan. "If you touch my bat again, I'll grease the ground with you! They'll sure carry you home on a stretcher, and you can bet your life on that!"
Again the umpire had not seen the interference, so cleverly had Copley perpetrated the trick. Eliot dashed at Grant and seized him, shouting for the Oakdale crowd to keep back; for at least twenty indignant persons were moving toward the diamond. There was a temporary delay, during which Roger spoke earnestly into Grant's ear.
"Don't lose your head now, old fellow," pleaded the Oakdale captain. "That's what he wants you to do. He thinks you can't hit the ball if you're mad."
"I reckon you're right," said Rodney, getting a grip on himself; "but he'll sure have a broken head if he does it again."
Having seen that look of rage in the Texan's eyes, Newt Copley was not at all disposed to repeat the trick with him. Apparently Grant's nerves had been somewhat unstrung, for when the game was again resumed he missed one of Sanger's shoots by something like a foot, and the second strike was called by the umpire. Then Rod smiled; it was barely a faint flicker, but Sanger saw it and wondered. His wonderment turned to dismay when the Texan skillfully poked a safety through the infield and went romping to first, cheered by the crowd.
"Never mind, cap," encouraged Copley; "the weak ones follow. You won't have any trouble with this undersized accident." A remark which inflamed Cooper, in spite of Chipper's pretense that he did not hear it.
On the very first ball handed up to the Oakdale shortstop, Grant, having got a start, raced down the line to second, slid spikes first, and was declared safe, Copley failing to get the ball to Roberts in time for a put-out.
But the Texan did not stop there. With Sanger's next movement of his regular delivery, Rodney, having got a lead behind the pitcher's back, went darting toward third. Copley, who had complained that Roberts was slow about tagging the runner, uttered a yell, took the ball as it came high above Cooper's shoulders, and lost no time in throwing to third.
Pratt had not anticipated an immediate second effort to steal by the runner, and he was a trifle slow about covering the sack. As a result, he was forced to reach for the ball with his bare right hand, and he dropped it.
The home crowd was on its feet now, shouting wildly as the umpire's downward gesture with both hands proclaimed the daring Texan safe at third.
Copley snarled at Pratt, and Sanger plainly showed that the performance of Grant had put him on the anxious seat.
The cheering now was incessant from both sides of the field, and this was not calculated to soothe the nerves of the worried pitcher. Nevertheless, had not Berry lost his head and forgotten that two were out, the game would have gone into extra innings. Cooper finally drove one toward the Barville shortstop, and Berry, leaping forward to catch the ball, saw Grant dashing toward the plate. Berry should have thrown to first, but, with his mind temporarily fogged, his only thought was to stop that run, and he hurled the ball to the plate. Copley was not prepared for this manoeuvre, and he leaped to get the whistling sphere, which, however, came high and wide, forcing him to reach for it.
The umpire had barely time to run forward a short distance ere he stopped and crouched as Grant flung himself headlong in a slide. Getting the ball, Copley swung back to tag the runner, but ere the horsehide was brought down between Rod's shoulder-blades, his hand had found the plate.
"Safe!" shouted the umpire.
And the game was won by the pitcher who had taken Springer's place in the fifth inning.
Like one stunned Roy Hooker passed out through the gate and turned down the street, dully conscious of the continued rejoicing uproar behind him. Alternately buoyed by hope and weighted by fear, he had passed the most trying hour of his life, and now in his bosom he carried a heart that seemed sick and faint and scarcely able to pump the blood through his veins.
"I was a fool to listen to Rackliff," he muttered; and over and over he kept repeating, "I was a fool, a fool!"
Suddenly apprehensive lest he should be overtaken by some one who might observe his all-too-evident wretchedness, he quickened his steps and made straight for his home. He did not enter the house, and as he slipped through the yard he cast sidelong glances toward the windows, hoping his mother might not be looking out. In the carriage house he sat down on the box beside his motorcycle.
"I was a fool—an awful fool!" he kept repeating.
Presently, his mind running over the game, feature by feature, he began to realize that he had not felt as much elation as he would have supposed might come to him on witnessing Springer's misfortune in the fifth inning. He had imagined it would afford him unreserved exultation to see Phil batted out of the box, but his rejoicing had been most remarkably alloyed by an emotion of another sort, which even now he could not understand. And, as he sat there, slowly but surely he began to perceive the real reason for Springer's failure.
"It was lack of control," he finally exclaimed. "That's just it. He was pitching all right until they broke his nerve by three hits in succession. After that he couldn't find the pan to save his life. If he'd been able to put the ball where he wished and steady down a little, he might have stopped that batting rally and had the satisfaction of pitching the game through to a successful finish. Now, Rod Grant gets all the glory."
He was still sitting there, obsessed by his dismal meditations, when a shadow appeared in the doorway, and he looked up to see Rackliff, the stub of a cigarette in his fingers, gazing at him. For a full minute, perhaps, neither boy spoke; and then Herbert, tossing the smoking stub over his shoulder, sunk his hands deep in his pockets and uttered two words:
"Rotten," said Roy. "But you certainly were all to the punk in your judgment about that game."
"Oh, I don't know," objected Herbert, leaning against the side of the doorway and crossing his tan-shod feet. "Barville should have won."
"How do you make that out?"
"They batted Springer out, didn't they? They sent him to the stable, all right."
"He lost his control, and Eliot had to take him out."
"Well, if you hadn't been mistaken in your judgment, that would have settled the game."
"If I hadn't been mistaken!" cried Roy resentfully.
"Why, I don't see——"
"Don't you? Then you should consult an oculist. You said Springer was the only pitcher the team had; you insisted that Grant couldn't pitch a winning game."
"Well, I know," faltered Roy; "but I——"
"You were mistaken—sadly mistaken. It's been an expensive blunder in judgment for both of us."
A flush rose into Hooker's pale cheeks, and he stood up. "Now, look here, Mr. Rackliff," he said harshly, "don't you try to shoulder it all on to me. I won't stand for that. You professed to be dead sure that under any circumstances Barville could down Oakdale. As to the matter of expense, it may have been expensive for you', but, according to our distinctly understood agreement, I don't lose anything."
Herbert lifted his eyebrows slightly, producing his cigarette case and fumbling in it vainly, as it was empty.
"Agreement?" he said. "What agreement?"
Hooker choked. "You know; don't pretend that you don't know. I hope you're not going back on your word. If you do——" He stopped, unable to continue.
"Oh, yes," said Herbert slowly, "I think I know what you mean. Of course I'm not going back on my word to a pal."
"Then give me the money I let you have to bet on Barville."
"Why, that money's gone. We lost it."
"Yes, but you pledged yourself to make good any loss I might sustain. There are reasons why I must have that money back—right away, too."
"I'm sorry," murmured Herbert, regretfully returning the empty cigarette case to his pocket; "but I'm afraid you'll have to wait a while. I went broke myself—haven't got a whole dollar left in the exchequer."
"But I've got to have it," insisted Roy huskily. "I depended on getting it back to-night."
Herbert laughed and snapped his yellow fingers. "When a thing is impossible, it can't be done, old fellow. You don't need money in this dead hole, anyhow. Why, a profligate couldn't spend ten dollars a week here, if he tried. You'll simply have to wait until my old man coughs up another consignment of the needful."
Roy sat down again, his face wearing such a look of dismay that Herbert was both puzzled and amused.
"To see you now," observed the city youth, "any one might fancy you a bank cashier who had speculated disastrously with the funds of the institution. Four dollars and sixty-five cents—that was the amount of your loss; and you look as if you had dropped a thousand."
"I want to tell you something," said Hooker suddenly; but again he stopped short and seemed to find it impossible to proceed.
"I'm listening," encouraged Rackliff. "Let it come. Great Scott! I'd like to have a cigarette."
But Roy, after remaining silent a few moments longer, slowly shook his head. "I won't tell you," he muttered; "I can't. But look here, Rack, you've got to get that money for me as soon as you can. I need it—if you only knew how I need it!"
"I'll drop my old pater a line to-night, informing him that I'm financially ruined. Gee! that makes me think of that little runt, Cooper! He certainly irritated me some by his insolent yapping."
"You came pretty near getting into trouble trying to coach Barville. You certainly had your nerve with you. I'd never had the crust to try that."
Herbert frowned. "It would have been all right, only for that big stiff, Bunk Lander. He threatened to punch me up, and I knew he was just the sort of a brainless fellow to do it. Only for his interference, Barville would have taken the game, and we'd be on Easy Street to-night."
"Eh?" exclaimed Roy, puzzled again. "I don't think I quite get you. I don't see how Lander's interference with you had anything to do with the result of the game."
The city youth coughed and shrugged his shoulders, a singularly crafty smile playing over his face.
"Of course, you don't see," he nodded. "I'll admit that I was somewhat too hasty. I should have waited a while longer before I attempted to put in my oar. That was where I blundered; but I didn't quite reckon on Lander."
"You've got me guessing. I wish you'd explain."
"I will. Did you think I took that journey to Barville on your old motorcycle merely for recreation?"
"Not exactly; I had an idea you went over there to talk with Copley and Roberts for the purpose of finding out how strong the Barville nine really was."
"Well, that was a part of the reason, but not the whole of it. I had something else on my mind. In case I became satisfied that the two teams were pretty evenly matched, I had a little plan through which I felt confident I could make it a dead sure thing for Barville. I was not off my base, either, and it would have worked out charmingly if that big duffer, Lander, hadn't dipped in and messed it for us."
"I'm still in the dark."
"Don't you remember that when I got back I asked you about Eliot's signals to the pitcher?"
"I thought I knew them, but I wanted to be dead sure; for I'd made arrangements with Copley to tip off certain Barville batters who could be trusted to the kind of balls that would be pitched. This was to be done in case the necessity arose, which it did when Oakdale took the lead and Springer seemed to be going well, with every prospect of holding them down. Then I proceeded to get down close to the ropes back of first base, where, by watching, I could come pretty near catching Eliot's signs. Sometimes I couldn't see them distinctly, but almost always I could. I was tipping off the Barville batters when they proceeded to fall on Springer and pound him beautifully. They did so because they knew just the kind of a ball he was going to pitch."
"Great Caesar!" muttered Roy, who was again standing. "You did that? How——"
"Oh, I'm surprised at your dullness," laughed Rackliff. "You heard me coaching. You heard me calling out for the batters to 'get into it,' 'hit it out,' 'drop on it,' 'give it a rise,' and so forth."
"Yes; well, there you are. When I said 'get into it,' it meant that Springer would pitch an in-shoot. 'Hit it out,' meant that he would use an outcurve, and——"
"Holy smoke!" gasped Hooker. "It's a wonder nobody got on. Do you suppose Lander——"
"Nit. That big bonehead didn't tumble. He was simply sore because I was a student at Oakdale and seemed to be rooting for Barville. All the same, he stuck to me like a leech, and I had to quit or get into a nasty fight with him. I couldn't afford to have my face beaten up, even to win ten dollars. By Jove! I've simply got to have a whiff."
In silence Hooker watched the shifty, scheming, treacherous city youth turn and search on the drive outside the door, recover the cigarette stub he had tossed away, relight it, and inhale the smoke with a relish that told of a habit fixed beyond breaking. Thus watching and thinking of the fellow's qualmless treachery to his own school team, Roy felt the first sensation of revulsion toward Rackliff.
At the close of the game there was another boy on the field who was quite as glum and downcast as Hooker himself. This was Phil Springer, who remained seated on the bench while his team-mates and a portion of the enthusiastic crowd swarmed, cheering, around Grant and lifted him to their shoulders.
Presently he realized that this behavior on his part must attract attention the moment the excitement relaxed, and he got up with the intention of hurrying at once to the gymnasium. Barely had he started, however, when something brought him to a halt, and beneath his breath he muttered:
"That won't do. They'd notice that, too, and sus-say I was jealous."
He was jealous—bitterly so; but he forced himself to join the cheering crowd and to make a half-hearted pretense of rejoicing. All the while he was thinking that Grant owed everything to him, and that perhaps he had been foolish in training a fellow to fill his shoes in such an emergency. For Phil had long entertained the ambition of becoming the first pitcher on the academy nine, and this year he had been fully confident until the present hour that the goal he sought was his beyond dispute.
The victors did not forget to cheer courteously for the vanquished, and Barville returned the compliment with a cheer for Oakdale.
So many persons wished to shake hands with Rodney Grant that he laughingly protested, saying they would put his "wing out of commission." Suddenly perceiving Phil, the Texan pushed aside those between them, sprang forward and placed a hand on Springer's shoulder, crying:
"Here's my mentor. Only for him, I'd never been able to do it. I owe what little I know about pitching to Springer. Let's give him a cheer, fellows."
They did so, but that cheer lacked the spontaneous enthusiasm and genuine admiration which had been thrown into the cheering for Grant, something which Springer did not fail to note.
"Oh, thanks," said Phil, weakly returning the warm grasp of Rod's strong hand. "I didn't do anything—except blow up."
Under cover of the chatter, joking and laughter, while they were changing their clothes in the dressing room of the gymnasium, Grant, observing the dejection Springer could not hide to save himself, again uttered some friendly words of encouragement.
"Don't you feel so bad about it, old partner," he said. "The best professional pitchers in the business get their bumps sometimes, and I might have got mine, all right, if I'd started the game on the slab, as you did. You'll make up for that next time."
"You're very kind, Grant," was Springer's only response.
Phil got away from the others as soon as he could, and hurried home to brood over it. It had been a hard blow, and he had stood up poorly beneath it. Thinking the matter over in solitude, he was forced into a realization of the fact that he lacked, in a great measure, the confidence and steadiness characteristic of Rodney Grant, and he could not put aside the conviction that it was Grant, the fellow he had coached, who was destined to become the star pitcher of the nine. In spite of himself, this thought, aided by other unpleasant contemplations, awoke in his heart a sensation of envious resentment toward Rodney. He was sorry now that he had ever spent his time teaching the Texan to pitch, and it occurred to him that the same amount of coaching and encouragement bestowed upon Hooker would not have resulted in the training of a man to outdo him upon the slab and push him into the background.
That evening he was missing from the group of boys who gathered in the village to talk over the game, and at school the following Monday he kept away from Grant as much as it was possible for him to do so. When practice time came after school was over, he put on his suit and appeared upon the field, but soon complained that he was not feeling well, and departed.
The following morning, shortly after breakfast, Phil saw Rod turning into the dooryard of his home. Instantly Springer sought his hat, slipped hastily through the house and got out, unperceived, by the back door. When he arrived at school, a few minutes before time for the morning session to begin, Grant was waiting for him.
"What became of you after breakfast, partner?" questioned Rod. "I piked over to your ranch looking for you, but you had disappeared. Your mother said you were around a few moments before, and she thought you must be somewhere about; all the same, I couldn't find hide or hair of you."
"I—I took a walk," faltered Phil, flushing. "I've got a bub-bad cold." In evidence of which, he coughed in a shamefully unnatural manner.
"Got a cold, eh?" said Rodney sympathetically. "You caught it sitting on the bench during the last four innings of that game, I reckon. I remember now that you didn't even put on your sweater."
"Yes, I guess that's when I got it," agreed Phil.
"Well, you've got to shake it in time for the game with Clearport. That's when you'll even things up."
All that day Springer sought to avoid talking baseball with any of the fellows, for invariably they spoke of Grant's surprisingly successful performance; and when they did so something like a sickening poison seemed to bubble within the jealous youth, who told himself that he could not long continue to join in this praise, but must soon betray himself by bursting forth into a tirade against the Texan. In a measure he did relieve his feelings by expressing his opinion of Herbert Rackliff, who was brazenly seeking to ignore the open disdain of his schoolmates. He did not come out for practice that night, and Grant explained to the others that Phil was knocked out by a cold, whereupon Cooper chucklingly remarked that he thought it was Barville that had knocked Springer out.
Shortly before dark, Phil, chancing to take a cross cut from Middle Street to High Street, observed Roy Hooker pelting away with a baseball at the white shingle on the barn. Drawing near, Phil asked Roy what he was doing, and the latter, startled and perspiring, looked round.
"Oh, is it you?" said Roy. "I thought perhaps it was Rackliff. I'm practicing a little by my lonesome."
"That's a hard way to practice," said Springer. "You can't get much good out of that."
"Oh, I don't know. I'm getting so I can hit that shingle once in a while, and use a curve, too. I couldn't seem to hit it with a straight ball when I began."
"You haven't given up the idea of pitching?"
"Not quite. After watching your performance Saturday—seeing you soak a batter in the ribs, and then hand out free passes enough to force a run—I came to realize what control means. I'm trying to get it."
Phil felt his face burn. "Control is necessary," he admitted; "but it isn't everything. When I put the ball over, they pup-pounded it."
"But they wouldn't if it hadn't been for——" Choking, as he realized what he had so nearly said, Hooker bit his tongue. Then he hastened to make an observation that snapped Springer's self-restraint. "They didn't seem to pound Grant much, and he appeared able to put the ball just about where he wanted to."
"Grant!" snarled Phil furiously. "That's all I've heard since the game! Grant, Grant, Grant! It makes me tired!"
"Oh, ho!" muttered Roy. "It does, does it? Well, say, didn't you realize what you were doing while you were coaching that fellow? I knew what would happen. I knew the time would come when you'd be mighty sore with yourself. I'm going to talk plain to you. This fellow Grant is practically an outsider; he doesn't belong in Oakdale. He's a presuming cub, too—always pushing himself forward. Here I am, an Oakdale boy, but you pick up with Rod Grant and coach him to pitch so he can step into a game when you're batted out and show you up. You won't be in it hereafter; he'll be the whole show."
"Oh, I don't know," returned Springer sourly. "He may get his some time."
"He may, and then again he may not; you can't be sure of it. If you'd only spent your time with me, I would have been willing to act as second string pitcher, and you would not have been crowded out. You put your foot in it, all right, old man."
"I suppose I did. But let's not talk about it. You weren't at school to-day."
"How did that happen?"
"Working? How careless! I didn't know you ever did such a thing."
"Well," said Roy slowly, "this was a case of necessity, you see."
"Oh, you needed the money, eh?"
"No; it wasn't that, though I earned a dollar and a quarter helping shingle John Holbrook's barn. You see—my mother, she—she lost some money recently."
"Yes; lost it, or—or something," Roy replied stumblingly. "It wasn't much, but it was all she had. She'd saved up a little at a time to buy material for a new dress."
"How did she happen to lul-lose it?"
"I can't tell. She doesn't quite know herself. She put it in a drawer in the house, and when she went to look for it, it was gone."
"That sounds like a robbery instead of a loss."
"But it couldn't be a robbery," protested Hooker quickly and earnestly. "Nobody would come into the house and take money out of that drawer—nobody around here. You never hear of such a thing happening around this town. Perhaps mother mislaid it somewhere. Anyhow, it's gone, and I'm going to try to earn enough to replace it."
"Well, say, Hooker," exclaimed Phil, "you're all right! I didn't suppose you'd stoop to work, even under such circumstances. Do you know, lots of times we're liable to misjudge some one until something happens to show us just the sort of a person he is."
"Yes; I suppose that's right," said Roy. But he did not look Phil in the eyes.
PLAIN TALK FROM ELIOT.
"How's your cold, Phil?"
It was Eliot who asked the question, and Springer, pausing with one foot on the academy steps, replied:
"Oh, it's some bub-better, I think."
"Glad to hear it," said Roger, slipping his arm through Springer's. "Come on, let's walk over yonder to the fence. I want to have a little chin with you. It will be ten minutes yet before school begins."
Together they walked to the fence at the back of the yard, pausing beneath one of the tall old trees which was putting forth tender green leaves. Leaning against the fence, the captain of the nine faced his companion.
"As a rule," he began, "you've been a great enthusiast over baseball, and I didn't think you'd let a slight cold keep you away from practice. Exercise is one of the best remedies for a cold, if a person takes care of himself when he's through exercising."
"I know that," said Phil, poking his toe into an ant's nest and declining to meet Roger's steady, level gaze; "but, really, I—I was feeling pretty rotten, you know, and I didn't have mum-much heart for practice."
"Yes," said the captain, "I'm afraid that was the principal trouble—you didn't have much heart for it. You lost heart in the game, and you haven't braced up yet. I hardly thought it of you, Phil; I didn't expect you to play the baby."
"The baby!" exclaimed Springer resentfully.
"Yes; that's just what you've been doing. I made up my mind to speak plainly to you, and I'm going to do so—for your own good. You've been sulking, old fellow. It doesn't pay, Phil; you're hurting yourself far more than any one else."
"I don't think you've got any right to call it sulking," objected Springer in a low tone. "I own up that I did feel bad about the way things went in that gug-game; but I caught a cold, and I decided to take care of myself in order to get back into my best condition."
"Is that the reason why you've been giving Rod Grant the cold shoulder?"
"I haven't been giving him—— What has he said to you, Eliot? Has he been tut-tut-talking about me?"
"Not a word."
"Then why should you say I'd given him the cold shoulder?"
"It was apparent to the dullest, Phil. For some time before that game you and Grant were very chummy; you were nearly always together, so that everybody noticed it. Since the game you've not been together at all, and I, myself, have plainly observed your efforts to avoid him. Now, old man, there can only be one explanation for such conduct: you're sore—sore because he succeeded in holding Barville down after you had failed."
Weakly Springer sought to protest against this, but stopped in the midst of it, fully comprehending how feeble his words were.
"It's folly, Springer," said Eliot, "sheer childish folly. We were all sorry to see you get your bumps and lose control, and I don't believe any one was any sorrier than Grant himself; for, somehow, I've come firmly to believe that he's on the square. He was reluctant about going on to the slab when I called him."
"Perhaps that was because he was afraid he'd get his, too," muttered Springer.
"Now, that isn't generous, and you know it. If the score had been heavy against us at the time, some fellows might have fancied Grant's reluctance was prompted by fear and a disinclination to shoulder another man's load in the first game he pitched. I've not sized it up as anything of the sort. You and he were close friends, and, knowing how you must feel to be batted out, he was loath to go in. You must realize it was a mighty lucky thing for us that we had a pitcher to take your place. Barville had you going, Phil, and you couldn't seem to steady down. Even old stagers get into that condition sometimes when pitching, and it's not an infrequent occurrence that a slabman who is not thought so good steps in and stops the slaughter."
"Every-bub-body seems to think Grant is pretty good," mumbled Springer.
"He certainly did amazingly well, for which he generously gave you all the credit."
"I suppose he'll be the whole shooting match, now."
"Those words betray you, my boy. You've been trapped by the green-eyed monster. Come, come, Phil, you're too manly for that." He put out a hand and rested it on Springer's shoulder.
The color mounted into Phil's cheeks and slowly receded, leaving him pale, and still with downcast eyes. Eliot went on, steadily and earnestly:
"We need two pitchers—we must have them if we hope to make a decent showing in the series. By and by we'll have to play two games a week, and some of those games come so close together that one pitcher alone, unless he has an arm of iron, can't do all the flinging. You've been wonderfully successful in coaching Grant, and all the time you were training him to relieve you in a measure when the hardest work should come. Nobody wants to rob you of any credit; every one says you've done a mighty good turn with him. But if you continue to sulk, as you have for the past few days, you'll lose the sympathy of your teammates; but you won't hurt Grant—otherwise than his feelings."
"I don't believe it would hurt his feelings a great deal."
Roger was vexed, but he continued to maintain his calm manner. "You ought to know him better than any one else around here; you ought to know whether he's at all sensitive or not. I'll tell you honestly, if I were in his place to-day, I'd feel it. Now, I'm your friend, old fellow, and I want you to listen to me and take my advice. Forget it. Get out for practice, treat Grant the same as before, and make up your mind you'll do your level best to redeem yourself in the next game you pitch. You'll have plenty of chances to show the stuff you're made of."
"I don't suppose the fellows have much confidence in me now."
"Nonsense! Unless they're chumps, they know every pitcher has his off days. There'll be a practice game to-night; we'll play against a picked up scrub team. Now, I want to see you at the field in a suit and ready to do your part."
"All right," agreed Phil.
But later, conscience-stricken and ashamed, he could not bring himself to seek Rodney Grant and own up manfully to his silly behavior. And Grant, having begun to feel piqued, made no further advances.
At noon that day Roy Hooker returned to school, bringing a written excuse from his mother. Having a chance to speak privately with Springer, he said:
"I hear Eliot has expressed his estimation of you and Rod Grant."
Phil started. "You can near lots of things," he retorted sharply.
"The fellows have been talking about it," returned Roy. "They say Eliot has said Grant will make a better pitcher than you, because you lack heart."
It was a blow below the belt, and, in spite of himself, Phil could not help showing the effect.
"He's welcome to th-think what he chooses," he exclaimed hotly; "it doesn't disturb me."
Nevertheless, he was so much disturbed that, in spite of his promise to Roger, he was not with the team when it took the field that night for the practice game. For he himself had vainly sought to put aside the depressing and unnerving conviction that in steadiness, stamina and self-confidence, Rodney Grant was his superior; something he had determined never to breathe to any one else, but which the keen judgment of the team captain had found out.
Nevertheless, when he reached home by a roundabout course, and found it impossible to dismiss thoughts of the boys engaged in that practice game, he eventually decided that he was a fool. Having reached this conclusion, he set off in great haste for the gymnasium, running the greater part of the distance.
Drawing near the gym, he could hear the boys engaged in the game beyond the high board fence. It did not take him long to shed his outer clothes and get into a baseball suit.
The game was in the second inning, with the regular team at bat and Hooker pitching for the scrub, which was made up partly of grammar school boys. Everybody seemed to be watching Roy, and Phil walked on to the field and toward one of the benches without attracting attention.
"Look at Hook!" whooped Chipper Cooper. "He's actually trying to strike Roger out!"
Eliot was at bat, and the umpire had just called the second strike on him. There were no runners on the sacks.
"He struck aout Tut in t'other innin'," drawled Sile Crane. "I guess that's got him puffed up some."
Apparently not at all discomposed by these remarks, Hooker continued steadily about his business, and presently, rousing a shout of surprise, he succeeded in fanning the captain of the nine. Roger stepped back from the plate, after striking out, and stood there gazing at Roy, with one of his strange, rare smiles.
Crane followed. "Dinged if I wouldn't like ter see him fan me!" he said.
A moment later Hooker pulled him handsomely on a wide one, and the first strike was called, Cooper being again awakened to a wondering, whooping state of merriment.
"Look out! look out!" shouted the little fellow. "He'll get you if you don't. Who said Hooky couldn't pitch? There's more pitch in him than you can find in a big chew of spruce gum."
Crane, setting his teeth, made two fouls, and then sent Chipper into real convulsions by whiffing at a high one which Roy whistled across his shoulders with surprising accuracy.
"You wanted to see it," yelled Cooper. "You got a look, all right. Oh, say! Where did this new Christy Mathewson come from, anyhow? Look out for him, Roddy, or he'll add you to his list. List' to my warning."
Rodney Grant did not strike out, but, nevertheless, he failed to meet one of Hooker's shoots squarely, and the grammar school shortstop gathered in an easy grounder and threw to first for the third put-out.
Roger Eliot lingered to speak a word to Hooker, and Springer, still unnoticed, plainly heard what he said.
"Perhaps we've made a mistake in sizing you up, Roy, old fellow. It's your work alone that has prevented us from scoring in either of these innings. You've always had speed and curves, but now you seem able to get the pill over. Keep it up, old fellow, and you'll make a pitcher yet, We may need you before the season ends."
"There's Phil," cried Grant, spying him. "I'll take the field. Let him pitch."
Eliot turned, saw Springer, and looked relieved.
"Wondered where you were," he said pleasantly. "I see you're ready for business. This is a five-inning game, and Grant has pitched two innings already; you can hand 'em up the last three."
"But I haven't warmed up any," said Phil. "I couldn't get around any sooner."
"There's no hurry," returned Roger. "You can have plenty of time to limber your wing; the scrub won't object to that."
"But I don't want to butt in and take Grant's place."
"Shucks!" cried Rod genially. "Who's butting in, anyhow? What are you talking about, partner? I want to get some field practice anyhow, and perhaps I will if you're kind enough to let the scrub hit you once in a while. They're putting up a right smart sort of a game, but Hooker's mainly responsible, as he hasn't been letting us rap him to any great extent. No scores yet on either side."
"Come on, Phil," called Eliot decisively, as he slipped his left hand into the big catching mitt, "get out there and wiggle your flinger. Tuttle, maybe they'll let you play with the scrub, so Grant can occupy the right-hand pasture."
This arrangement was quickly made, the captain of the scrub team having filled his outfield positions with youngsters who were even weaker than Tuttle. Springer accepted the ball tossed to him, and walked out to the pitcher's box, where he began warming up by throwing to Eliot, while the scrub batters waited around their bench. He was not in the most agreeable frame of mind, but he had no fear of the scrub players. In a few moments he announced that he was ready, and began work with the determination of striking out the first fellow who faced him. Ordinarily, this would not have been such a difficult thing to do, but, through some unusual freak of chance, the batter, swinging blindly, succeeded in hitting out a most annoying little Texas leaguer that sailed just beyond the eagerly reaching fingers of Jack Nelson.
"Come, Spring, old wiz," cried the thoughtless Cooper, "you've got to do better than that. If you don't, we'll have to put Grant back on the slab to avert the disgrace of being beaten by this bunch of kid pick-ups."
A sudden gust of anger caused Springer to glare, speechless, at the annoying shortstop; and he was so much disturbed that, in spite of all he could do, the next batter, "waiting it out," was rewarded for his patience by a pass. Within a few moments both these runners advanced on a long fly to the outfield, dropped by Stone after a hard run.
Springer forced a laugh. "Can't expect to hold the kids dud-down with that sort of support," he cried.
He did strike the following hitter out; and then came Hooker, who found a bender and straightened it for a sizzling two-bagger that sent in both runners.
Springer longed to quit at this juncture, but, being ashamed to do so, he relaxed his efforts and pitched indifferently, permitting the two following scrubmen to hit the ball. It chanced, however, that neither of these fellows hit safely, both perishing in a desperate sprint for the initial sack.
Rodney Grant, jogging in from the field, seated himself beside Springer on the bench.
"You were a little out of form that inning, son," he said; "but you'll be all right next trip, I opine."
Without replying, Springer got up and began pawing over the bats, as if searching among them for some special favorite.
Hooker again pitched very well, indeed, but poor support gave the regulars a score, and they would have obtained more had not Roy risen to the occasion, with one down and the bases full, and struck two hitters out.
Although Phil showed some improvement in the fourth inning, and the scrub team did not succeed in securing another tally, he felt all the while that his teammates were watching him closely and comparing or contrasting his work with that of Hooker; nor did he forget that in the first two innings Grant had performed more successfully.
To the surprise of many, fumbles and bad throws behind Hooker in the fourth did not seem to discourage him, and he persisted in pitching as if the game was one of some importance and he had resolved to do his part, no matter what happened. The errors gave the regular team three runs and the lead, and it was Hooker's work alone that kept them from obtaining several more.
In the fifth and last, Phil whipped the ball over spitefully, and only one batter hit it safely. Nevertheless, with the contest ended and the fellows trooping toward the gymnasium, he noticed that no one had any word of praise for him, while several expressed their surprise over the showing Hooker had made. Even Grant, whose friendly advance had been met with churlish spleen, commended Hooker. Phil felt as if the very ground was slipping from beneath his feet, and it made him sore and sick at heart. He paid little attention to the talk of the fellows while dressing, until of a sudden the words of Nelson caught his ear.
"Of course, you fellows have heard all about that Clearport-Wyndham game? I had a talk to-day with a fellow who saw the whole of it. Cracky! Clearport did come near pulling it out of the fire—actually batted out a lead of one run in the first of the ninth. If Wyndham hadn't come back in her half and made two tallies, she'd been stung."
"I hear," said Berlin Barker, "that Clearport pounded Wyndham's wonderful new twirler off the slab."
"That's right," said Nelson. "They got at Newbert in the seventh and gave him fits. The score was eight to two in favor of Wyndham when the 'Porters began connecting with Newbert's twists, and they hammered in three earned runs before the shift was made. Twitt Crowell was sent in to save the day, but if he hadn't had luck, they'd kept right on. It was his backing that checked the stampede."
"The Clearporters always have been heavy batters," said Eliot. "If they could play the rest of the game the way they bat, they'd be almost sure to win the championship."
"The fellow we put up against them for Saturday will have to have his nerve with him," grinned Cooper. "If he weakens, they'll murder him."
"Crowell got through the eighth all right," continued Nelson; "but in the first of the ninth the 'Porters found him and bingled out four runs. It looked as if they had the game tucked away; but Wyndham rose to the emergency in the last half and got two, which let them out with a victory."
"If Clearport can play like that away from home," observed Sleuth Piper, "my deduction is that she will be a terror to beat on her own field."
Springer, dressed, stowed his playing clothes in a locker and walked out of the gymnasium unnoticed. This was the first time he had heard the particulars concerning that game, although on Saturday the surprising information had been telephoned to Oakdale that Wyndham had been barely able to squeeze out a precarious victory on her own grounds. As Eliot had stated, the Clearporters were batters to be feared, and Phil was now in no condition to be unruffled by this menace to his prowess.
Once more Springer sulked; not until Friday night did he again show himself for practice. Eliot, thoroughly disgusted, and realizing that it was the worst sort of policy to coax such a fellow, let him alone. He was given a chance to warm up and do a little pitching to the batters, but, following Eliot's example, no one tried to coddle him.
"Everybody be on time for the train to-morrow," urged Roger, as they were dressing. "Trains won't wait for people who are late."
But even when he went to bed that night Springer was undecided as to whether he would be on hand or not. Had he been urged, it is doubtful if he would have appeared; but, perceiving, in spite of his dudgeon, that he could gain nothing by remaining away, he arrived at the station just in time to board the train with his comrades.
The day was disagreeable, rain threatening, and, deep in his heart, Springer hoped it would pour all the afternoon. The menacing storm holding off, however, at the appointed hour the two teams were on the field ready for the clash.
Phil, still agitated by poorly hidden alarm, could not fail to observe the all too evident confidence of the Clearport players. The local crowd was likewise confident, something indicated by their encouragement of and cheering for their players.
"If I'm batted out to-day it's my finish," thought the unhappy Oakdale pitcher.
"Cheer up," said a Clearporter, trotting past him. "We won't do a thing to you. If you're sick and need some medicine, we'll hand you some of the same kind we gave Newbert and Crowell."
"Aw, go on!" growled Phil. "You're nothing but a lot of wind-bags."
While the locals were practicing Eliot called Grant and Springer aside, giving each a ball.
"Warm up, both of you," he directed. "I'll catch you."
So these rivals, who had only a short time before been friends, stood off at the proper distance and pitched alternately to Eliot. Grant was steady and serene, with good control and in command of some curves, of which the drop taught him by Springer led Roger to nod his head approvingly; seeing which, Phil, who had not been right to start with, grew very wild indeed.
Practice over, the Clearport captain trotted up to Roger, saying:
"We're all ready. We'll take the field. Let's get to playing before it begins raining."
Phil sat down on the bench, throwing his sweater over his arm for protection. The umpire called, "Play," and Nelson, cheered by the little crowd from Oakdale, stepped out with his bat.
The Oakdale captain found a place at Springer's side. "Phil," he said in a low tone, "I want you to be ready to go in any time. I've decided to start the game with Grant, but we may need you any moment."
THE BOY ON THE BENCH.
For a moment Phil was dazed; then a sudden feeling of relief flashed over him. He would not have to face those dangerous Clearport batters unless Grant should be knocked out, in which case, no matter what happened after he went in, all the blame could be thrust upon Rodney.
But this feeling of satisfaction lasted only a few seconds; gradually resentment and wrath crowded it out, and he sat there eaten by the bitterest emotion. Not for a moment had he dreamed Eliot would think of starting the game with the Texan on the slab, for this day he, Phil, was to be given the opportunity to redeem himself. It was an outrage, an injustice of such magnitude that his soul flamed with wrath. What if Grant were to succeed in holding the Clearporters down? In that case, of course, Eliot would permit him to pitch the game through to the finish, leaving on the bench the lad who had expected to do the twirling. And that would mean further glory for the chap Springer had thoughtlessly coached for the position of second pitcher; would mean that, if he pitched at all in future games, Phil himself would be the second string man.
Feeling that he could not contain himself, he was turning to Eliot when, to his amazement, he saw the fellows rising from the bench and starting toward the field; for while he had been thus bitterly absorbed the first three Oakdalers had faced Oakes, the Clearport pitcher, and not one of them had reached first base. Phil could scarcely believe it possible that the riotous condition of his mind had prevented him from realizing that the game was in progress, but such had been the case.
And now, hot and cold by turns, he saw Rod Grant fling aside his brand-new crimson sweater and jog forth, smiling, to pit his skill and brains against the local sluggers.
"I hate him!" hissed the miserable lad beneath his breath. "I hope they pound him to death right off the reel."
A few moments later his heart gave a tremendous leap of joy, and he almost shouted with satisfaction when Boothby led off by smashing the first ball Grant handed up. It was a terrific long line drive to center field, but Stone took the ball on the run, and the Clearport sympathizers groaned and cried, "Hard luck!"
"It was hard luck for Boothby," muttered Springer. "If he'd placed that drive farther to the left it would have been good for three sus-sacks. It was a fearful slam. Oh, they'll hand it to Mr. Grant, all right!"
The next batter, Long, likewise hit the ball, driving it buzzing along the ground, and again the crowd groaned; for Nelson made a hair-raising, one-hand, diving jab and got the sphere. He nearly sprawled at full length upon the ground in doing this, but finally regained his equilibrium in time to toss the ball to Crane for the second put-out.
"Right fine work, Jack," praised Grant. "That was just about as fancy as anything I ever saw."
"It was a fuf-fine thing for you, all right," whispered Springer to himself. "Robbed Long of a hit. Oh, they're going to hand you yours!"
"You're playing ball to-day, fellows," smiled Eliot, readjusting the catching mask. "That's the stuff!"
Barney Carney, Clearport's lively young Irishman, danced forth with a bat.
"Just be after letting me put me shillaly against one of them," he chuckled. "Ye'll find it over in the woods yonder."
After making three fouls, he hit the ball, hoisting it so high into the air that it seemed to dwindle to a quarter of its usual size. Cooper, coming into the diamond, gave no heed to the shouting of the crowd. "I'll take it!" he yelled, as the ball fell swiftly. And take it he did, freezing to the horsehide with a grip like grim death.
"You're wearing horseshoes all over you to-day, Mr. Grant," growled the watching lad on the bench. "But there'll come a change; this can't keep up."
It was impossible for him to wear a pleasant face as his teammates gathered about him, even though he tried, in a measure, to hide his chagrin. Silently he watched Stone lead off with a safety, and saw Eliot unhesitatingly sacrifice Ben to second. Nor did he move a muscle when Sile Crane slashed one into right field and Stone won the approval of his comrades and awakened the enthusiasm of the little crowd of Oakdale rooters by making a marvelous sprint over third and a slide to the plate that brought him to the rubber ahead of the ball.
Oakes, taking a brace, disposed of Cooper and Piper in double-quick time; and the visitors were forced to remain content with a single tally in the second.
Clearport again came to bat in a business-like manner, and in almost every detail the home team duplicated the performance of Oakdale. Butters, picking out a bender to his fancy, straightened it for a single.
"Good bub-boy!" mumbled Springer.
Stoker bunted, letting Butters down to second while he was being thrown out at first. Merwin got a Texas leaguer, on which Butters took a chance—foolishly, it seemed—and was saved by a wild throw to the pan that let him slide under the catcher.
"Now, Mr. Grant is getting his mum-medicine," grinned Springer joyfully.
But Grant, resorting to his wonderful drop, struck out both Ramsdell and Oakes. "That's the form, Grant!" approved Eliot; and Springer chewed his tongue with envy.
The third inning gave neither side the advantage, but Grant seemed to be swinging into shape; for, of the four hitters to face him, he retired three with an ease that made them look foolish.
Rain was now threatening any moment, and it seemed hardly probable that the downpour would hold off long enough for the game to be played through. "We must get into it as soon as we can, fellows," said Captain Eliot; "for if it does rain after the fifth inning, we should have the lead. Come on; take that pitcher's measure."
Whether or not his words had an effect, they proceeded to go after Oakes in a manner that might have discouraged any pitcher. Eliot, himself, started it with a screaming two-bagger, scoring on Crane's single. Sile took second on the throw to the plate, and stole third a moment later, romping to the pan after Cooper's fly to the outfield was caught.
With the sacks clean, Oakes' comrades were hopeful that he would check the enemy. It was not his fault that Piper reached first, as Hutt, at third, fumbled the grounder batted at him and followed this with a wretched throw. This seemed to put the home pitcher off his feet, for he passed Tuttle, to the great joy of the visitors.
"Great Caesar!" muttered Springer. "If they get a big lead, Grant may pitch it through and win. Why doesn't Merwin take Oakes out?"
But Oakes remained on the slab, and Nelson, seeking to drive the ball through an infield opening, batted straight at Carney, who winged the sphere across for a put-out.
"Only one more," said Merwin encouragingly. "Get Barker, Oakesie."
"If you don't get him, your goose is cooked—and mine, too!" whispered Springer.
Barker stood second on the list because he was a good waiter, but could hit well if necessary, and was, perhaps, the best bunter and sacrifice batter Oakdale had. With two down, he surprised the Clearporters by dropping a soggy one in front of the pan and beating it to first.
The corners were filled, and, "Here's Grant!" was the cry. Phil Springer's teeth chattered and his eyes almost glared as the Texan, with whom he had been on such friendly terms only a short time before, stepped out to face Oakes.
"If he'll only strike out!" thought Phil.
When Rod had swung at two balls, and missed both, it began to seem that he was destined to strike out. A few seconds later, however, he caught the ball fairly on the trade mark and drove it over the head of Carney, who made an amusingly ineffective leap for it.
Three runners chased one another over the pan, and Grant arrived at third base before the ball was returned to the diamond.
Springer was ill; at that moment, he thought, he would have given almost anything to be far from that field. It was all Grant, Grant, and never had he heard a more hateful sound than the shrill and frantic cheering of the small Oakdale crowd.
"Keep it up! keep it going!" entreated Eliot, as Stone went to bat.
Ben did his best, and he did pound out a long fly, but Boothby, in left, pulled it down after a hard run.
"The game is as gug-good as settled," muttered Springer, when his elated teammates had galloped off to the field and left him alone. "Unless rain stops it, Oakdale is the winner."
The Clearporters seemed to realize this, for they resorted to many obvious expedients to delay the game, casting imploring eyes toward the threatening heavens. The storm, however, perversely held off, and the locals found Grant too much for them in the last of the fourth.
"We're five runs to the good, fellows," said Eliot, as the Oakdale players gathered at the bench. "It's going to rain soon, and this inning must be played through complete. Let every man who goes to bat now strike out."
They followed instructions, Roger setting the example. Crane and Cooper made a pretense of trying to hit, but they did not even foul the ball.
A few straggling drops of rain, falling in the last of the inning, encouraged Clearport to dally until Eliot demanded of the umpire that he compel them to play or give the game to Oakdale by forfeit, and at last Grant struck out the third man.
While the boys were rejoicing in a victory they considered as positively assured, Phil Springer slipped away and left the field.
A LOST OPPORTUNITY.
But the game was not to end there, for, although it continued to sprinkle slightly at intervals, not enough rain fell to lead the umpire into calling time. The playing continued, with both teams fighting hard and wasting no opportunities after the conclusion of the fifth inning.
Unaware of this, Springer, who had noted that by hurrying he might possibly be able to catch the mid-afternoon train for the west, ran all the way to the hotel, where a room had been provided for the use of the visitors in changing their clothes, tore off his baseball suit, yanked on his regular garments, and arrived, panting, at the station just in time to swing onto the last car as the train was pulling out.
By this foolish action Phil lost a golden opportunity to put himself "right" with his teammates.
For in the eighth inning, with the score 7 to 2 in favor of the visitors, Clearport seemed at last to take Rodney Grant's measure, and, aided by errors on the part of Oakdale, they went after him with a fierceness that threatened to drive him off the slab. Eliot, becoming alarmed, looked round for Springer, desiring him to warm up and make ready.
All along the Oakdale captain had supposed Phil to be somewhere near at hand, but now not a trace of him was to be discovered. Making an excuse to do something to the catching mask, Eliot ran to the bench and called Bunk Lander, who was watching the game from a position near by.
"Lander," said Roger swiftly, as he fussed with the mask, "where is Springer? We need him—bad."
"I gotter idea," said Bunk, "that he's skipped. Saw him go out through the gate in a mighty hurry at the end of the fifth."
"Skipped!" muttered Roger, paying no heed to the demands of the Clearport crowd that he should play ball. "It can't be possible that he—— Say, Lander, find Roy Hooker, quick. Tell him I want him on the bench. If he's loyal to his school he'll come. I'll set him to warming up, anyhow."
Bunk went searching for Hooker, and discovered him at the far end of the right-field bleachers, talking with Herbert Rackliff.
"Hey, you, Hook!" called Lander. "Roge Eliot wants you to warm up, for it looks like they're going to knock Grant into a cocked hat. They got him goin' somethin' fierce. You gotter save this game for us—if you can."
Hooker's face flushed and he caught his breath. Was it possible he was to have an opportunity to pitch in that game? Eagerly he started, but Rackliff's stained fingers gripped his coatsleeve.
"Are you going to be an easy mark?" asked Herbert scornfully. "Are you going to let them run you in after a game is lost by another pitcher? Have you forgotten the sort of rotten, shabby treatment you've had to stand by this very bunch that wants to put you up for sacrifice now?"
"Look here, you pale-faced, sneaky, cigarette-suckin' pup," rasped Bunk furiously, "you take your claws off his arm and let him alone, or I'll grasp the occasion to hand you the dose of medicine I come so nigh givin' ye at the game last Satterday. Mebbe he can save this game, and it's up to him to try, anyhow. I s'pose you've bet some more money ag'inst your own school team, and want to see it beat. Somebody's goin' to give you all that's coming some day pretty soon. Come on quick, Hook."
Roy did not permit Herbert to detain him longer, but he heard and understood some words which were hastily whispered into his ear by the fellow as he was starting away.
Meanwhile Grant had pulled himself together at last, despite the howling of the Clearport crowd, and, with the bases full and the enemy only one tally behind, he struck out two men, bringing the rally to an end.
Rod's face wore an unusually serious expression as he walked to the bench, at one end of which Eliot stood unbuckling the body-protector.
"That sure was a right rotten exhibition of pitching," said the Texan humbly. "Why didn't you yank me out, captain?"
"Because," answered Roger, "there was no one else to put in."
"Has disappeared; can't find hide nor hair of him. I sent for Roy Hooker as a last resort and—here he is!"
Roy came up, his face flushed. Eliot spoke to him quietly in a low tone:
"Springer has deserted us," he said. "If I'd had you on the bench and ready, I'd surely sent you onto the firing line to relieve Grant. Get somebody to catch you and limber your arm up. I may let you finish the game."
So Hooker peeled off and went at it warming up while Oakdale made a desperate but futile effort to gather some more tallies. While his players were striving to solve Oakes' delivery Captain Eliot had a brief talk with Grant.
"You were not wholly to blame for that streak, Rod," said Roger. "Those two bad errors helped things along; they sort of got your goat. You ended strong by mowing down Butters and Stoker, and I think perhaps you can go back and finish it out."
"But you sent for Hooker. He's warming up now."
"I sent for Hooker as a last resort when you were performing at your worst. Just then I'd tried almost anybody in your place, hoping that the change might put an end to the slaughter; but now, unless you have lost your nerve——"
Rodney gave Roger a resentful look. "I reckon I've still got my nerve with me," he said warmly.
"Then I'm going to let you try to hold them. If they get another run the game will be tied, and two more runs gives them the victory. You've got to hold them right where they are."
"I certain will do my level best to hold them."
And so it happened that Hooker did not get the chance to pitch in that game, after all. Eliot explained to him that Grant was willing to try to pitch it through, but added that he should bench Rod instantly in case he betrayed any bad symptoms. The Texan, however, was cool as a cucumber and steady as a mountain, not even seeming to hear the howling of the crowd, which resumed its uproar in an effort to put him off his feet again. Captain Merwin was the first victim, retiring by the strike-out route; and then Ramsdell hit weakly on the ground, being thrown out long ere he could sprint to first; the game ending 7 to 6 in Oakdale's favor when Eliot pulled down a high foul from Oakes' bat.
"I'm much obliged to you, Hooker, old chap," said Eliot cordially, after the cheering was over and the boys had started from the field. "It was fine and loyal of you to answer my call promptly, as you did; but as long as Rod still had his nerve I thought it best to let him try to finish it out. Come along with us. We've got to have two pitchers, and if Springer has taken a huff you'll likely get chances enough to do some twirling."
Although disappointed because he had not been permitted to pitch in the final inning of the present game, the prospect of possible opportunities in the future cheered Hooker, and he marched from the field with the other players, feeling almost as if he was one of them.
Roy was standing on the steps of the hotel, waiting for the boys to dress, when Herbert Rackliff approached at a languid saunter, smoking, as usual, and looking rather dejected and cast down.
"I say, Hook," said Herbert, "lend me the price of a ticket back to Oakdale, will you. I've gone clean broke over here, thanks to the rotten luck. You know I told you at the field that I'd bet my last red on Clearport. Why didn't Eliot put you in to pitch? If he had, you could have saved my money for me without——"
"Look here, Rack," interrupted Roy hotly, "if that's the kind of a chap you think I am you've got me sized up wrong. I know I gave you money once to bet against Oakdale, but I'd never throw a game for you or anybody else."
"Oh, well," sneered Herbert, "it isn't likely you'll have a chance. I notice Eliot didn't let you pitch, after all. He doesn't take any stock in you. Now don't get hot with me, for we're friends. If I'd bought a return ticket I'd be all right, but——"
"I'm going back on the train with the team," said Hooker. "Came over on my motorcycle. I'll let you have that. It will take you home all right."
Rackliff looked still more weary. "I detest the thing," he said. "Come, old chap——"
"I've got only money enough for my own fare," said Roy. "You'll find riding my motorcycle better than walking."
"That's right," sighed Herbert resignedly. "I'll take it."
Phil Springer returned to Oakdale in a wretched frame of mind. Barely had the train carried him out of Clearport before he began to regret his hasty action in running away, but it was then too late to turn back.
"I suppose some of the fellows will think it rotten of me to sneak," he muttered, "but the game was practically over, and there was no reason why I shouldn't get back home as soon as I could. Why should I hang round just for the pleasure of making the return trip with the rest of the bub-bunch and being forced to listen to their praise of Rod Grant for his fine work! They'll slobber over him, all right. He's the star now, and I—I who taught him everything he knows about pitching—I am the second string man! I won't be that! I won't be anything! I'm done!"
He was not a little surprised as he stepped off the train to find it was not raining, although the sky was still heavy and threatening, as if the downpour might come at any moment.
"It certainly is coming down in Clearport, just the same. It had begun before I hiked. Hiked! I hate that word; Grant uses it. Clearport is nineteen miles away, and it frequently rains there when it doesn't here."
He hurried over the bridge and up through the village toward his home.
"Hi, there, Phil!" cried a voice as he was passing the postoffice, and a wondering looking youngster came running out. "What are you doing here—at this hour? Saw you start for Clearport with the team, and——"
"Game's over," cut in Springer. "Rain sus-stopped it."
"Yes; it's raining over at the Port."
"Rotten! How many innings——"
"Five; just finished the fif-fifth when the clouds started to leak."
"Oh, then it counts as a game," palpitated the interested boy. "How did the score stand? Who was ahead?"
"Oakdale, six to one," answered Springer over his shoulder as he hurried on up the street.
"Hooray!" came the elated shout of the rejoicing lad. "Then you trimmed 'em! Jinks! that's fine. But, say—say, who pitched?"
Springer quickened his stride, seemingly deaf of a sudden. He had felt the question coming, and he had no heart to answer it. It would be asked by every fellow in Oakdale who had not attended the game, and, on learning the truth, they would join in one grand chorus of acclamation and praise for the Texan. For the time being Grant would be the king pin of the town.
Reaching home, Phil slipped in quietly without being seen by his mother and tiptoed up to his room, where, in sour meditation, he spent the intervening time until supper was ready. In a vague way he realized that he had, by deserting the team, betrayed himself to all his comrades as a fellow swayed by petty jealousy; but this thought, which seemed trying to force itself humiliatingly upon him, he beat back and thrust aside, persisting in dwelling on the notion that he had been most shabbily treated by Captain Eliot.
"He led me to believe he meant to give me a chance to-day, and then he let me warm the bench while Grant went out to win all the glory. It wasn't a square deal. I'll show him he can't treat me that way! I'll never pitch again as long as he is captain."
This resolution, however, gave him anything but a feeling of satisfaction; it was poor retaliation, indeed, for him, who loved the game so dearly and had looked forward so confidently to this season when he would be the star pitcher of the nine, to "get square" with Eliot by refusing to play at all. It would have seemed somewhat better had he felt certain that his withdrawal must seriously cripple the nine, but, judging by recent events, it appeared that Oakdale could get along very well without him—might, indeed, succeed fully as well as it could with him on the team.
Grant was to blame for it all. No, not Grant; he himself was to blame. Had he not been such a blind fool he might have foreseen what would happen, for had not Rodney Grant displayed beyond doubt since appearing in Oakdale the natural qualifications of mind and body which would make him a leader at anything he might undertake with unbridled vim and enthusiasm? The fellow who had been so completely misjudged by almost everyone during his early days at the academy, had demonstrated later that he was a thoroughbred, with nerve, brains, courage and the will to step into the front ranks wherever he might be. His one great fault, a fiery and unreasoning temper, he was fighting hard to master, and in this, as in other things, he had already shown that he was destined to succeed.