"I was a Jack!" growled Phil, walking the floor of his room and savagely kicking an inoffensive chair out of his way. "I should have known. If I had taken Hooker in hand and coached him, instead of Grant—— But I never did like Roy very much, and somehow Rod Grant got on my sus-soft side."
His mother, hearing him prowling around, called up the stairs and was somewhat surprised to find him home.
At supper he tried to hide the disturbed state of his mind, but his father, who seldom took any interest at all in such matters unexpectedly attempted to joke him a bit.
"Got beat to-day, I see," said Mr. Springer. "Did you up pretty bad, didn't they?"
"How did you get that idea?" asked Phil evasively.
"Oh, I can tell by the way you act. You're broke up, though you're making a bluff not to show it. Let's see, played Clearport, didn't ye? I s'pose they give you an awful hammering? Oakdale'll have to get another pitcher after this."
"They didn't beat us; we won."
"Whew! Is that a fact? Well, what's the matter with you, then? I thought by your looks that you'd been done up brown. What went wrong with the game, anyhow? Didn't you get good backing up?"
"I didn't pitch."
"So that's it, eh? How did it happen? The way you've been blowing around the house every time you could get anybody to listen, I thought you were the whole thing in that particular department."
Phil's cheeks burned and his hands shook nervously, although he fought hard to appear unconcerned and indifferent. In replying the slight impediment in his speech became more pronounced.
"The gug-game only went fuf-five innings; it commenced to rur-rain then, so they didn't finish it out. You see I—I cuc-can't do all the pitching, and Eliot put in Grant for the first pup-part of this game." He was intensely annoyed because of his unusual halting and stammering over this explanation.
"Humph! Rained, eh? That was odd; just began to rain here about half an hour ago."
"It began to pour at Clearport right in the middle of the game," declared Phil. "I was just ready to relieve Grant, for he—he was sort of—sort of sus-showing signs of weakening. Eliot had sus-started me to warming up, but it—it began to rain, and that sus-settled it."
His wounded pride, his wretched jealousy of Grant, had led him into the telling of an untruth, and he left the table feeling very contemptible indeed. Certainly it was not a malicious falsehood that was liable to do any one particular harm, but it was a falsehood just the same, and he was ashamed.
His room was like a cage, and he found he could not read or study. What were they saying about the game in town? What were they saying about the pitching of Rodney Grant? Despite the rain, some of the fellows would gather after supper at the postoffice or Stickney's store to talk it over. This talk after a victorious game had ever held a keen delight for Phil, and it was rarely that he missed being on hand to take part in it.
"I must get out!" he cried suddenly. "I'll just wander down street; maybe I'll meet some fellow who won't be all done up in Grant."
Putting on an old raincoat and securing an umbrella, he left the house and started down the street. At the first corner he paused, for if he continued straight down Main Street he would have to pass Roger Eliot's home, and surely he had no desire by any chance to run upon Roger. A drizzling rain was falling, and twilight was coming on. Turning, he cut through Cedar Street and down Willow to avoid passing Urian Eliot's fine house.
On his way he passed a house no less pretentious than that of the Eliots; it was the home of Lemuel Hayden, whose only son, Bernard, had been compelled to leave Oakdale because of his jealous efforts and lying and plotting to injure Ben Stone, whom he bitterly hated. The boys of the town had talked that matter over many times, and it was universally conceded that Bernard's unrestrained hatred of Stone and plotting for the boy's injury had led him at last into a pit of his own digging and brought upon him nothing more than just retribution.
A strange and most unpleasant thought struck in upon Springer; in almost every particular, save a deliberate underhand effort to injure Grant, he was not a whit better than Bern Hayden, who now had not a single boy friend left in Oakdale.
That thought staggered Phil a bit. Why, in a vague way he had contemplated seeking some surreptitious method of accomplishing the overthrow of Grant!
"Oh, I guess I'm rotten!" he growled. "But it's dirty luck that's made me so!"
FELLOWS WHO MADE MISTAKES.
Roy Hooker lived one block further down the street. The popping explosions of an approaching motorcycle greeted Phil's ears as he walked on, and up the street came a chap astride such a machine, the lamp of which had not yet been lighted. The motorcycle swerved into Hooker's yard and nearly ran Springer down.
"Hey!" cried Phil, dodging. "What are you trying to do, Hooker?"
But it was not Hooker who shut off the motor and tumbled off the machine as it slackened speed. It was Herbert Rackliff, soaked, mud-bespattered, limp and in a temper.
"Why in the dickens don't you get out of a fellow's way?" snapped Herbert, supporting the machine and glaring round at Phil. He bore little resemblance to the usual dapper, immaculate, self-possessed young fellow from the city whose tailored clothes and swagger manners had aroused the envy and admiration of a number of country lads thereabouts.
"Oh, is it you?" said Springer. "I thought it was Hooker. What are you doing out in this rain with his machine?"
"Just getting back from Clearport," answered Herbert, with a sour laugh. "If I owned this old mess of junk I'd pay somebody to take it away. She stopped twice on me and skidded me into the ditch once. Came mighty near leaving her there and hoofing it."
In truth, Rackliff was a sight, and Springer restrained a laugh with some difficulty as he observed:
"It must have taken you a deuce of a while to get back on that thing, for the game was over by three o'clock."
"Half past three," corrected Herbert, turning to trundle the motorcycle toward the carriage house, the door of which, seen through the twilight, was standing open.
"I caught the three-twelve train from Clearport," said Phil, unconsciously starting to follow Rackliff.
"Huh!" grunted the other. "Know you did, but you didn't wait to see the finish. If you had——"
By this time Springer was at the speaker's side and had seized his mud-spattered, rain-soaked sleeve.
"What are you talking about?" he cried. "Rain stopped the game right after the fifth. Saw I had barely time to get into my togs and catch that three-twelve, so I hustled."
Rackliff started to laugh, but finished with a hollow cough. "Bet I've caught a rotten cold," he gasped. "The game went for the full nine innings. Didn't begin to rain until I was pretty near halfway home."
Phil was struck dumb for the moment, and before he could recover Hooker, having heard their voices, came running out to the carriage house, calling to Rackliff. Springer followed the drenched and complaining city youth into the shelter of the building, where Roy recognized him and seemed to betray embarrassment.
"Take your old machine," said Rackliff, "and I hope it may be my everlasting finish if I ever ride another rod on it. Look at me! I'm a complete wreck, and all because you were too blamed stingy to lend me the price of carfare from Clearport. This suit is ruined, and I'm soaked to the bone. You ought to use an axe on the thing next time it gets out of order, Hooker."
"And these are the thanks I get for furnishing some means of transportation," said Roy resentfully. "Well, I don't know that I should expect anything else."
Herbert, producing his cigarette case, gave a little half-muttered sigh of relief when he found that the contents of the case had escaped a wetting.
"Gimme a match, one of you fellows," he coughed. "I'm just crazy for a smoke. This has been the rottenest day I've seen in a long time."
Hooker, having seen that the motorcycle was placed on its rack, supplied the match, and Rackliff fired up, the light seeming to shine through his thin, cupped hands as he protected the blaze from the light draught that came in through the open door. He looked tired, and the first whiff or two set him coughing again.
By this time Springer had recovered, and he ventured to ask:
"What's this Rackliff tells me about the gug-game going nine innings? It began to rain in the fifth and, wishing to get home as soon as I could, I ducked when that was over. I didn't have an idea——"
"It didn't rain any to speak of until long after the full game was over," said Hooker. "You should have stayed, Phil; they wanted you—bad—in the eighth. Eliot was simply tearing things up in his frenzy to find you."
"Why—why, what happened?" faltered Springer, a sickening feeling stealing over him. "Tut-tell me what ha-happened, Roy."
"The Porters got after Grant and bumped him to beat the band. Came within one tally of tying the score. If you'd been there Eliot would have shoved you in, and you'd had a chance to win all sorts of glory saving the game."
"Perhaps he would, and perhaps he wouldn't," muttered Phil.
"Oh, it's a dead sure thing he would have done it."
"How do you know?"
"Didn't I tell you he tried to find you! Why, he even sent for me; he was going to put me in."
"You?" breathed Springer incredulously.
"Yes, me; and I didn't have on a playing suit. If Grant hadn't managed to steady down at the last moment, I'd gone onto the slab. What made you skin out, Phil?"
After a few moments of silence, Springer forced himself by a great effort to speak:
"I tut-told you I thought the game was o-over."
"You might have waited for the rest of the bunch. If you'd done that you'd known it wasn't over. The fellows are pretty sore on you, for they say you deserted."
Phil flushed and flared. "Let them be sore, I don't care! I'm the one to be sore! I got a rotten deal to-day. I had every reason to suppose I was going to pitch that game, but Roger Eliot ran Grant in. I want him to understand he can't play that sort of fuf-funny business with me; I won't sus-stand for it. I'm glad they hammered Grant! Did they win?"
"No; we pulled through by the skin of our teeth—seven to six. It was an awful snug rub. I believe I could have stopped the Porters if I'd got the chance; I'm dead sure you could. That's why I say you made a big mistake by scooting."
Herbert Rackliff, smoking, laughed sneeringly.
"Don't blame Springer a bit," he said. "He did get a rotten deal, and he has a right to resent it. What ails you, Hook; are you going to let Eliot softsoap round you? He'll do it if you'll let him, for he's got to have some sort of a scrub pitcher to fall back on for part of the work. Of course, this wild and woolly Texan will be the star and get all the glory, but somebody must do the dirty work. Hook, you're a lobster. I didn't think you'd fall for taffy like that. You give me a cramp." He coughed behind a thin hand as he finished, his flat chest torn and his stooping shoulders shaken by the effort.
"Now that will about do for you!" blazed Roy, turning on his erstwhile chum. "I want you to know that, at least, I'm no traitor to my school team, and, though you hinted for me to favor you to-day, I'd done my level best to win for Oakdale if I'd ever got the chance."
"You're a fool," returned Herbert coldly. "Springer is a fool, too. He made a chump of himself when he taught Grant to pitch. In this world the fellow who looks out for himself and lets others do the same for themselves is the one who gets along. You can bank on that every time. Think it over and see if I'm not right. Good night." With which expression of selfish wisdom, he turned up his coat collar, snapped aside his half-smoked cigarette and took his departure, leaving Phil and Roy staring at each other in uncomfortable silence.
After a time Springer succeeded in forcing a laugh.
"That's just about what you told me a few days ago, Hook," he said, "but I really didn't need anyone to point out that I had made a fool of myself. Sorry I didn't wait to make sure rain was going to stop the game to-day. What makes it worse, I told my folks a lie about that game. I'll feel cheap enough when they fuf-find out the truth. Guess I'll be going, too. So long, Hook."
"Good night," said Roy.
He stood at the open door and watched Phil's figure disappear into the gloom of the rainy night that was coming on.
"Told your folks a lie, did you?" he muttered after a time. "Well, that wasn't half as bad as stealing from them, and I——" Without finishing the sentence, he closed the door of the carriage house.
A PERSISTENT RASCAL.
Nearly always it is false pride that spurs on the naturally decent fellow who realizes he has made a mistake and knows deep down in his heart that the course he is pursuing is wrong. Thus it was with Phil Springer. Time and again his conscience condemned him and his judgment bade him come forth like a man and own up to his error, but his pride would not let him yield.
And so Phil found himself sulking at school, seeking to bear the atmosphere of one who had been treated outrageously, and growing more and more resentful and sullen as time passed and none of the fellows came around to coddle and coax him. He had felt certain that he would be approached by some of them, and repeatedly he had rehearsed the speeches by which he would let them know exactly how he felt about it, resolved carefully to avoid uttering a word which might convey the impression that he regarded himself as a single whit at fault.
But no one—not even Cooper or Tuttle—approached him, and he began to believe that the time he had spent in constructing and committing those speeches of mingled defense and accusation had been wasted. He had once been deeply concerned in a plan by which Rodney Grant had been practically ostracized by the academy boys, and now, to his deepening rage, while Grant floated high on the wave of popularity, he found himself ignored.
Phil was naturally a sociable fellow, and a very little of such treatment was sufficient to make him suffer keenly. Nevertheless he sought to hide the fact beneath a haughty and disdainful air, which was a course his disposition and temperament hardly qualified him to do.
His sister, who had not attended the game at Clearport, was the first of his family to learn that he had fibbed about that game, and this she did not discover until the following Monday morning, when her chum, Lela Barker, told her everything.
"Oh, Phil," Sadie had said when she found a chance to speak with him privately, "what made you tell father such a whopper about the game? Why, it wasn't stopped by rain at all, and they say you ran away right in the middle of it, and that Roger wanted you after that when they got to hitting Rodney, and that you couldn't be found anywhere, and that all the fellows are sore on you because you skipped out, and that——"
"Oh, cut it!" interrupted Phil. "What do I cuc-care what they say! Let them talk their heads off."
"But, Phil," persisted the girl, "what made you do it? You don't want to get everybody down on you, do you?"
"They can get down on me or not, just as they pup-please!" he flung back. "I know when I get a rotten deal, and Roger Eliot, or Rod Grant, or anybody else can't wipe his feet on me more than once—that's all!"
On Monday, when school was over for the day and the fellows hurried over to the gym to dress for practice, Phil walked stiffly out of the yard and turned his steps toward home. It is true that he longed and almost hoped to hear some one of those fellows calling after him, but not a soul seemed to observe which way he went, and resentful anger blazed yet more fiercely in his soul.
Thus it was upon Tuesday night, when he observed that Roy Hooker was one of the fellows who hastened toward the gym, which was enough to convince him that Roy had practically been taken onto the team to do a portion of the pitching.
When his sister again tried to talk with him about baseball that night he cut her off in such a snappy, savage manner that she was really frightened.
The next night, however, he did not walk down the path to the gate in view of the scholars, so that they might take notice that he declined to accompany the baseball squad. Instead of that, he dodged back round the corner of the academy, crossed the yard at the rear, and took the footpath across the field to High Street.
He was lonely and cast down and bitterly disappointed; for had he not sounded the professed friendship of his chums of yesterday and found it very shallow! Not one of them had shown the decency to give him a word of cheer; they were willing that he, who but a short time ago they were regarding as their star slabman, should slide back into shadows and forgetfulness, while a practical stranger from a distant part of the country filled his place. It was hard to believe of them, but he told himself he was glad to find out just what they were.
Had Grant himself shown a further inclination to friendly advances Phil might have met him halfway, but the Texan had some pride of his own, and he was not the kind to seek continued rebuffs. Had he known that Springer was ready and yearning to yield, doubtless Rod would have lost not a minute in again putting forth the hand of friendship; but, being unaware of what was passing in Phil's heart, and feeling that already he had tried to do the right thing, the boy from the Lone Star State remained aloof with the others.
Halfway across the field, as the path curved round some bushes, Springer came upon Herbert Rackliff, sitting on a stone, manicuring his nails with the file blade of a pearl-handled knife, a cigarette clinging to his moistened lower lip.
"Hello," said Herbert, with no intonation of surprise, as he looked up. "How do you happen to be dodging across this way, Springer?"
Phil was annoyed. He had never liked Rackliff. Still here was some one to whom he could talk, and desire to "chin" was strong upon him. He stopped.
"This is a short cuc-cut for me," he explained. "What are you doing here?"
"Trimming my nails a bit. Have to do my own manicuring down in this jumping-off place, and I never have time for it mornings; barely get to the old academy soon enough to escape the tardy record—sometimes I don't escape. Never knew you to come this way before, even if it is a short cut. In a hurry?"
"Ye-yes—no, not exactly; but this was as good a way as any."
"You don't seem to be practicing with the great Oakdale nine," said Herbert, bringing forth a fresh cigarette. "I'm surprised at that."
"Are you? Well, you needn't be."
In lighting the cigarette Rackliff was seized by a choking fit of coughing, which led him to wipe his eyes with a dainty silk handkerchief.
"I knew I'd catch a beastly cold coming home through the rain the other night on that old lemon of Hooker's," he said when he could get his breath. "I hate a cough; it always seems to tear my lungs out. Next thing I know I'll be throwing one of 'em up."
"You don't look well."
"I have felt better. Never mind, I'll get over it; but, oh! you bet your life you'll never catch me on a motorcycle again. They are rotten dirty things anyhow; simply cover you with dust when they don't paste you with mud. Have a smoke?"
"Don't care if I do," said Phil, accepting the proffered cigarette case and selecting one. "I don't make a practice of using the things, but I need something to cheer me up."
Rackliff also supplied a match, and then motioned toward a near-by stone, urging Phil to sit down and make himself comfortable.
"You haven't looked hilariously cheerful of late," said the city youth. "Sort of taken your downfall to heart, haven't you?"
"Yes. Oh, you're down and out, all right, and you must realize it—you do, too. Your proficient pupil, Mr. Rodney Grant, has tumbled you off the pedestal and taken your place."
"I wish you wouldn't tut-talk about him!" cried Phil.
Herbert shrugged his narrow shoulders and smiled.
"You don't like him any better than I do, that's plain. You thought you liked him once, but you've found him out. He's a conceited pup. Strange how everybody seems to fall for him, even Lela Barker. Now she's just about the nicest little clipper around these parts, but she's got country ideas, and she can't see the difference between a gentleman and a common cowpuncher—which latter Grant is, and mighty common, at that. Your sister is Lela's chum; I should think you might get your sister to open Miss Barker's eyes to that fellow. Couldn't you show him up somehow and fix it so your sister would put Lela wise to him?"
"If I could, I wouldn't take all that trouble," replied Phil, who had seated himself and was puffing at the cigarette in a way that threatened to demolish it in short order. "He isn't worth it."
"Perhaps not, but I should think you'd want to get back at him after the turn he's done you. I never saw anything dirtier—never. After you coached him he simply wormed his way into Eliot's favor and crowded you out as soon as he could. He's got everybody saying that he's a better pitcher than you ever were or ever could be. You bet he doesn't miss a chance to sneer about you behind your back; that's him. I'm glad you've shown spirit enough to resent it, and not to go crawling around after him or any of the rest of that bunch."
"You'll never see me cuc-crawling after anybody!" cried Springer fiercely; "and Grant better keep a decent tut-tongue in his head! He needn't think because he happens to have an ugly temper and belongs to a fighting family that everybody is afraid of him. I can stand a lot, but there's a limit."
Herbert turned his head away for a moment to conceal the gleam of satisfaction that sprang into his eyes, coughing behind his hand.
"You're made of different stuff from that soft slob Hooker," he said. "I did think that Hook had some sand and spirit, but I've changed my mind; he has just about as much backbone as a jellyfish. He can talk and blow, but it's all wind. You're a fellow with genuine spirit and pride; nobody wipes his feet on you."
"Not if I know it," growled Phil, flattered by the words of the crafty fellow.
"Of course not; and that's the way to be. It's only the marks who let themselves be used for footmats; Hooker's a mark. They'll use him, all right. He'll do the dirty work they would have given you if you'd let them, while Grant will get all the glory."
Springer laughed. "Perhaps he won't get as much glory as he expects. Clearport came near batting him out. Wait until he goes against Wyndham next Saturday."
"Now you're talking!" exclaimed Rackliff with enthusiasm. "There will be something coming to him then. I fancy it may be possible that you would enjoy seeing Wyndham beat Oakdale?"
"Shu-surest thing you know," answered Phil, who had been cleverly led into making such a confession. "I hope Wyndham eats them up alive!"
"Your desire will be gratified. Wyndham will make monkeys of them."
"I don't just see how you can be."
"I suppose you've heard how Wyndham actually buried Barville last Saturday. The score was seventeen to three—something awful."
"But Clearport came mum-mighty near beating Wyndham the week before."
Herbert winked wisely. "Maybe they did, and maybe they didn't," he said.
"Oh, but they did! They batted Wyndham's new pitcher, Newbert, off the slab."
At this Rackliff laughed. "Tell it to the marines. I happen to know Dade Newbert; we were chums. I own up I was surprised when I heard how the Porters had biffed him. Wrote him asking about it. He'd been out the night before the game—out with a hot bunch playing poker till daylight. He didn't want to pitch anyhow, but the captain just shoved him in; so when he got tired and Wyndham seemed to have a safe lead, he just lobbed the ball over and let Clearport hit. Of course he was taken out, and that gave him a chance to look on while Twitt Crowell did the heavy work."
"If that's right," said Phil, "Newbert can't be trusted. Why, he might have thrown the game away."
"Oh, he reckoned Crowell was good enough for the Porters, that's all. The result proved his judgment correct."
"Still a fellow who'll tut-take such chances is liable to do anything. He cuc-can't have any real loyal interest in his team. If he took a notion, he'd throw a game."
"You must remember," reminded Rackliff, "that Newbert doesn't belong in Wyndham, and it really doesn't make any great difference to him whether that team wins or not. Of course, if he's pitching, ordinarily he'll do as well as he can on his own account. And let me tell you, Spring, old fel, he's a lulu; there's nothing down in this neck of the woods that can pitch with him. I'm betting that he makes the Oakdale batters look like monkeys."
"You haven't had very good lul-luck betting, have you?"
"Might have done better," admitted Herbert, shrugging. "I'll even it all up next Saturday, though, if these pikers around here have sand enough to give me another show."
"Perhaps you will, and, then again, perhaps——"
"I'll bet you five or ten, even money, that Wyndham wins."
"Thought you went bub-broke last Saturday."
"I'll have some more money by to-morrow."
"Well, I don't want to bet. I hope Wyndham does win. It will make me happy."
"Then you'll be happy, all right, Bo."
"Looks like the fight for the championship will be between Wyndham and Oakdale. If Wyndham takes the first game from Oakdale, the chances for this town will be mum-mighty slim."
Herbert rose to his feet.
"Oakdale hasn't one chance in a hundred to win next Saturday," he declared in a manner which seemed to denote that he positively believed what he was saying. "It's dead lucky for you, old man, that you're not going to pitch. Your dear friend Grant is enjoying great popularity just at present, but even the dummys will realize that he's a fourth-rater after they see him pitch against Newbert. Dade knows what I want him to do, and for old times sake he'll do his prettiest. And, by the way, if you want to coin some easy money, just find a sucker who is ready to back Oakdale for a little bet."
SELF-RESTRAINT OR COWARDICE.
Rackliff had succeeded in doubling Springer's hatred for Rodney Grant. So the fellow Phil had befriended and taught to pitch was sneering about him behind his back! And everybody was saying that Grant was already a better pitcher than his instructor ever could hope to become! Springer wondered how it was possible that, even for a moment, he had ever taken a fancy to such a chap.
"He'd better not say too much about me," Phil growled to himself. "I know he is a fighter. I know he has a fearful temper. But he'll find out I'm not afraid of him."
That very night Lela Barker, coming to the post office to mail some letters, was followed and annoyed by Rackliff when she started to return home. Herbert persisted in forcing his unwelcome company upon her until, catching sight of a familiar figure passing on the opposite side of the street, she called for assistance.
Rodney Grant came running across, giving Rackliff a look, cap in hand, as he inquired the cause of the girl's alarm.
"Oh, Rod," she said, "I do wish you would walk home with me. This—this fellow has persisted in following me and forcing his company upon me."
"The onery, conceited, unmannerly cad!" exploded the Texan, evidently itching to put hands on Herbert, who bluffed the situation through with insolent effrontery, laughing as he lighted a cigarette. "What he needs is a good thrashing, and, if he wasn't a sickly, insignificant creature, it would give me a right good heap of satisfaction to hand him one."
"Bah!" said Herbert. "You're a big blowhard, that's all. It betrays lamentably poor taste on Miss Barker's part to prefer the company of a lout like you to that of a gentleman."
It was lucky for Rackliff that Lela was there and her hand fell on the arm of the boy from Texas, for otherwise Rodney might have forgotten himself. Fearing his lack of self-restraint, the girl urged him away, and they left Herbert leaning against a tree and still laughing, his cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
Half an hour later Grant, having returned, was talking baseball with several fellows who had gathered in a group near Stickney's store, when Rackliff sauntered up.
"Just a word with you, Mr. Cowpuncher," said Herbert in a loud voice. "You applied several objectionable adjectives to me a while ago, and now I want to tell you just what I think about you. You're nothing but a common, low-bred, swaggering bluffer, as the blind dubs around here are due to find out. You think you're a baseball pitcher. Excuse me while I laugh in my sleeve. You're the biggest case of egotistical jackassism it has ever been my luck to encounter. Next Saturday, when you get up against a real pitcher who can pitch, you'll look cheaper than thirty cents."
Grant surveyed the speaker with mingled amusement and disdain.
"Have you got that dose of bile out of your system?" he asked. "If it's all over, go lie down somewhere and forget yourself. That will be a relief. Being ashamed all the time sure must get tiresome."
Herbert lost his head at once. "You're a duffer and a bluffer!" he shouted shrilly. "How any decent, refined girl can have anything to do with you I can't imagine. It just shows that Lela Barker is——"
He got no further, for, brushing one of the fellows aside, Grant caught the speaker by the throat and stopped him. His face dark, the Texan shook Rackliff until his teeth rattled.
"Shoot your mouth off about me as much as you please, you miserable sneak," he grated; "but don't you dare ring in the name of any decent girl unless you are thirsting to get the worst walloping of your life!"
Rod's eyes blazed and he was truly terrible. Once before the boys had seen him look like that, and then they had realized for the first time that it was the young Texan's uncontrollable temper that he feared and which had made him, by persistent efforts to avoid personal encounters, appear like a coward. There was not a cowardly drop of blood in Grant's body, but experience and the record of his fighting father had taught him to fear himself.
Even now the fact that he let himself go sufficiently to lay hands on Rackliff seemed to spur him on, and, still shaking the limp and helpless fellow, he maintained his hold on the city youth's neck until Herbert's eyes began to bulge and his face grew purple.
Suddenly another lad pushed his way through the circle and seized Grant by the shoulders:
"Lul-let up on that!" he cried, his voice vibrant with excitement. "What are you trying to do, choke the lul-life out of a fellow that you know isn't any match for you? If you want to ch-choke somebody, let him alone and take me."
It was Phil Springer. His head jerked round toward his shoulder, Rodney Grant looked into the eyes of his friend of a short time past, and suddenly he released his hold on Rackliff, who, gasping and ready to topple over, was supported by one of the other boys.
"If you want to choke somebody, take me!" repeated Phil savagely. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
Grant took a long breath. "That's right, Springer," he admitted, "I reckon I ought. I allow I clean forgot myself."
Somehow this quiet admission, which was wholly unexpected, seemed to enrage Phil still more.
"I suppose you think everybub-body around here is afraid of you now that they've found out your father was a genuine bad man," Springer sneered. "Well, you'll discover there's one person who isn't afraid. I'll fight you."
To the amazement of all present, the boy from Texas shook his head, something like a conciliatory smile appearing on his face.
"You won't fight me, Phil," he retorted, "for I won't fight."
Phil himself could not understand why this refusal simply added fuel to the flame of his wrath. He felt himself a-quiver with the intensity of his emotions, and, seeing Grant so calm and self-possessed, he was obsessed by a yearning to strike him in the face.
"Oh, so you won't fight, eh? Why not?"
"We have been friends."
"We have been, but aren't any more, and we never will be again; for I've found out just what sort of a fellow you are. You think yourself a better pitcher than I am or ever can be, do you? Oh, I've heard what you've been blowing around here about me, and you needn't deny it. You've had some luck in one or two games, but you're due to get your bumps. If you've got any fuf-further talk to make about me, come and make it before my face. It's a sneak who goes round shooting off his mouth behind another fellow's back—and that's what you are, Rod Grant!"
"Now there'll be something doing, sure!" breathed Chipper Cooper, agitated by great expectations.
Still, to the increasing wonderment of the boys, Grant held himself in hand.
"I couldn't take that off you, Phil," he said, a bit huskily, "if we hadn't been friends and I didn't realize that you sure would never say it in your right mind. I'm right sorry——"
"Oh, yes," scoffed Phil derisively, "you're sus-sorry you can't work me for a chump any more. You know what I think of you, and if you've got any real sand you'll pick it up. All I ask is a square show, and I'll give you the scrap of your life. You can't frighten me with your savage looks, and I've got my bub-blinkers on you so you can't catch me off my guard and hit me. That's the way you've won your reputation as a fuf-fighter around these parts. You've never faced anybody in a sus-square stand-up scrap, but you've grabbed and ch-choked fellows like Bunk Lander and Herbert Rackliff when they weren't expecting it. I know a little something about handling my dukes, and I'll bet I can lick you in less than tut-ten minutes."
"Perhaps you can," said Grant.
"Gee whiz!" spluttered Chipper Cooper. "What do you know about that, fellows?"
It was true that Grant had never engaged in a real fist fight since coming to Oakdale, but he had once stretched an enemy prone and stiff with a single sudden blow, and since the brave part he had played in rescuing Lela Barker from drowning Phil was the first to question his courage.
Herbert Rackliff, having recovered his breath and found sufficient strength to stand without assistance, was looking on and listening in the greatest satisfaction. "Soak him, Phil!" he whispered faintly. "Go for him!"
"Perhaps you're right," said Grant again, as Springer surveyed him with marked contempt. "Anyhow, I certain am not going to fight you."
Springer seemed genuinely disappointed. "I have a mind to punch you," he declared. "Perhaps you'd brace up then and show a little manhood."
Rod retreated a step, which added to the impression that he was afraid.
"You'll be sorry some time, old chap," he said, "just as I would be if I permitted you to lead me into a wretched fight. You don't understand——"
"Oh, yes I do; I understand everything. I've gug-got you sized up for just what you are, a big case of bluff. I've cuc-called you, and your show-down is mighty rotten. Bah! If the fellows around here want to think you the whole shooting match after this, they're welcome to do so. But in order to keep your reputation as a dangerous character you'll have to do something besides jump on fellows like Rackliff and Lander."
Disdainfully he turned his back on Grant.
"You chaps can sus-see just what sort of a creature your fine hero is," he said. "Now hang around him as much as you like, and worship him. You all make me sick!"
He walked away, followed hastily by Rackliff. At the corner above the square Herbert overtook Phil, who seemed surprised as he came up.
"Oh, say," chuckled the city youth, "you did bore it into him fine! And he didn't dare put a hand on you, either. That was queer, for, my word! he's strong as Sandow. He handled me as easy as if I wasn't out of knickerbockers."
"Paugh!" said Phil. "Anybody could do that. You've sus-sucked cigarettes until you haven't as much strength as a sick kitten."
"Oh, I don't know about that," retorted Rackliff resentfully. "I guess I'm about as strong as the average fellow; but I tell you he's a holy terror—a perfect Hercules. I thought every minute he'd open on you. I don't see why he didn't, for you rubbed it in to the limit."
"He didn't dare, that's the reason why," declared Springer. "I've got him sized up now; he's the kind that strikes when the other chap isn't lul-looking."
"I guess you're right. I called him a bluffer, too. It was first rate of you to step in and take my part."
"I didn't do it on your account."
"Not at all. I was itching for an excuse to get at him, and you provided one, that's all."
Herbert was somewhat taken aback by this frank confession.
"Well," he said slowly, "anyhow, you showed him up to that bunch of lickspittles. They were surprised."
"I fuf-fancy so. This whole town has got the notion that Rod Grant is simply it. They thought he would fight at the drop of the hat."
"What would you have done if he'd taken you up?"
"Whipped him," answered Phil confidently. "I've taken boxing lessons. What does he know about scientific fighting? I had made up my mum-mind to take care that it was a regular fight by rounds, with seconds and a referee to see fair play. I'd certainly fixed him that way, all right."
Still, to his annoyance, Rackliff seemed doubtful. "Perhaps you would, but if he'd ever got in one wallop——"
"Oh, you make me tut-tired!" exclaimed Springer.
"Well, even if you didn't butt in on my account, I'm much obliged, just the same. You're all right, Spring, old fel, and if I can do you a good turn I will. Perhaps I'll have the chance. Gee! I want a whiff. Have a smoke?"
"No," declined Phil. "I'm going home. Good night."
He left Herbert there, lighting a cigarette and coughing hollowly.
HOOKER BREAKS WITH RACKLIFF.
Passing Hooker's home on his way down into the village Thursday evening, Rackliff saw a light in the carriage house, which led him to fancy he might find Roy there. In this he was not mistaken; Hooker was puttering over his motorcycle by the light of a lantern. Hearing a footstep on the gravel outside, he looked up and perceived the visitor entering by the open door.
"Hello," said Herbert.
"Hello," grunted Hooker, without any effort at cordiality or welcome.
"Tinkering with that old thing again, I see," coughed Rackliff.
"Thanks to you, I am."
"Thanks to me?"
"Yes; it has been out of order ever since you used it last. Baseball practice doesn't give me much time to work on it by daylight, and so I'm trying to get her running now."
"Take my advice and pay somebody to remove the thing. It's the biggest old lemon I ever saw. All it's worth is its price as junk. Gee! I'm feeling rotten." He sat down on a box, coughing again.
Indeed Herbert did not look well, and there seemed to be something of an alarming nature in the sound of his cough. His thin cheeks were flushed and feverish.
"You don't have to worry yourself about it," returned Roy warmly. "It's mine, and I presume I can do anything I please with it."
"Awful touchy to-night," muttered Rackliff. He lighted a cigarette, but the first whiff threw him into a most distressing fit of coughing and he flung it out through the open door. "Can't seem to get anything out of a smoke," he complained. "Cigarettes don't taste good, and they raise the merry dickens with this old cough of mine. I've got a beastly headache, and I suppose I ought to be in bed, but I've got to go down to the postoffice. Expect a letter from Newbert to-night."
"So you're corresponding with him, are you?" said Roy, wiping his greasy hands on some cotton waste.
"Sure. Why not? We were chums, you know."
"And of course you still think him the greatest pitcher that ever happened?"
"He's just about the greatest in his class; you'll find that out Saturday. Watch how he shows Cowboy Grant up. Say, Springer rather showed that fellow up, too, didn't he?"
"How do you mean?"
"You know; the way he made him pull his horns and take water."
"Who says Phil Springer made Rod Grant take water?"
"I do. I was there and saw it. Your Texan hasn't got any nerve. He's the biggest case of fake to be found in seven States. He's strong, I'm not denying that; but when he saw that Springer really meant business he didn't dare do a thing."
"I've heard the fellows talking about it," said Hooker, "but I don't believe Grant was afraid of Phil Springer. A fellow who would take the chances he did to save Lela Barker from drowning couldn't be frightened by Springer."
"I've heard about that, too, and, as near as I can make out, Grant took those chances because he had to."
"Had to? Why——"
"He had to after he got caught by the current and carried over the dam with the girl. There couldn't be any backing out then. I'll bet he never would have jumped into the water at all if he'd stopped a moment to consider the danger. According to the story I've heard, it was really that big lout, Bunk Lander, who did the great act of heroism and saved both Grant and the Barker girl; but of course Grant got most of the credit. Anyway, I know that some fellows have lost a bit of their confidence in the cowpuncher since Springer faced him down; they're due to get the rest of it shaken out before the game ends Saturday."
"I suppose you're mighty confident again that Oakdale will get beaten?"
"It's a certainty this time, Hook. Let me give you a little tip. You lost some money on that game with Barville, and this is the chance to win it back. Bet on Wyndham Saturday and you'll even up your mistake before."
"My mistake! It wasn't my mistake; it was yours. Besides, you didn't keep your word about making good any loss I might suffer. You put me in a nasty hole, Rackliff."
"I don't see why. To hear you talk, anybody might think you were ruined instead of merely getting hit for less than a fiver. Never knew a fellow to put up such a squeal over a little money."
Hooker's cheeks were flushed and he faced Herbert, his undershot jaw seeming to project still further than usual.
"I lost more than that," he said.
"What? You did? Why, you only gave me four dollars and——"
"I lost something more than money."
"You didn't tell me about it."
"I haven't told anyone—but my mother. I had to tell her the other day. When you wanted me to bet on that game I told you I didn't have any money."
"But I knew where my mother had some money put away in a drawer—some money she had been saving up a little at a time to buy the material for a new dress. I went into that drawer and took that money. You were so positive that I could not lose that I—well, I stole the money."
"Dear me!" said Herbert, grinning and coughing behind his thin hand. "What did the old girl say when she found it out?"
"She never suspected me," said Roy. "She couldn't think I would do such a thing. And I—I lied about it. When she discovered the money was gone and became distressed over its loss, I lied."
"You would have been a fool if you'd owned up."
"I was a fool to touch a cent of that money, in the first place. I was a fool to listen to your blarney, Rackliff. Just because I was idiot enough to believe in you, I made myself a thief and a liar. Oh, I've been punished for it, all right. Never knew I had a conscience that could make me squirm so much. Some nights I slept mighty mean."
"Paugh! You make me laugh. It wasn't anything to take a few paltry dollars like that. You're mother'll never know."
"She knows now."
"I told her."
"Well, you are a big chump! What made you do that?"
"I had to. You can't understand how rotten I felt when I saw her crying over the loss of that money. I was ashamed and sick—oh, sick as a dog! I made up my mind I'd pay it back, every cent."
"And so you can if you'll just get hold of another fiver and bet it on Wyndham."
"I've paid it back already, all but fifty cents. Why do you think I stayed out of school to work at any old job I could get? I'm not particularly stuck on work, but I couldn't go on feeling that I was a thief—that I had stolen from my own mother. That's what you brought me to, Rackliff."
Herbert sneered. "That's right, blame it all on me and let yourself out entirely. Now let me tell you something, my bucko: it was your over-weening conceit, your jealousy of Springer and Grant, your itching desire to see them get their bumps, that led you, as much as anything else, to bet against Oakdale in that first game. You were sore on Eliot, too, because he didn't put you in to pitch—and you couldn't pitch a little bit. When I bet against Oakdale, I did so on judgment; you did so because of prejudice and spite. Now, don't put on any virtuous frills with me, for I'm not feeling good to-day, and you make me tired."
The insolence of the fellow infuriated Hooker, who, nevertheless, knew there was no little truth in what he had been told. Restraining himself with an effort, Roy attempted to retort sarcastically.
"So you bet on judgment, did you? Well, you must confess your judgment was mighty poor. And, to make the thing safe, you made arrangements to betray Oakdale's pitching signals to Barville. I didn't know anything about that—until after the game. If I had known in advance——"
"Now what would you have done?" asked Herbert, snapping his fingers. "If you had found out about that after your money was wagered on Barville, I presume you would have warned your dear friend Eliot and sacrificed everything! I've noticed that you have kept mighty still about it since you did find out."
"Yes, I've kept still, because you failed in your crooked scheme, and because—well, because I wasn't anxious to have it known that I bet the way I did, and I knew you'd retaliate by peaching on me if I breathed a word concerning you."
Herbert laughed and coughed at the same time. "Just so. Wise boy. I certainly should have done just that. Let me tell you now that things will be fixed doubly solid for the game next Saturday, and——"
"Look here," cried Roy, facing the visitor threateningly, "if you attempt to repeat that trick in Wyndham I'll expose you sure as shooting. I mean it. You can't frighten me. You can tell that I bet against my own team if you want to, but——"
"I presume you're perfectly willing that I should tell how you came by the money? Oh, I guess you'd keep still even if I tried the same trick over again."
"I wouldn't. Try it and see! I've paid the money back, and you can't keep me still that way. I'm pitching on the team now, and I want to see it win."
"Too bad you're going to be so keenly disappointed. You won't do any pitching against Wyndham, that's a cinch. Eliot has been forced to take you up as a makeshift since losing Springer, but you'll be used only in the minor games. Grant will do all the heavy work in the big games, and get all the glory. The first time I heard you talk, Hook, I thought you had some real spirit; but I've found out that you're just a common weak-kneed, aspiring sycophant, ready to feed on crumbs and lick the hand that flings them to you."
"I've heard about enough from you!" snarled Hooker. "I think you'd better get. I don't want to put my hands on you, but I shall if you stay any longer and shoot off your face. I think you and I will call it quits, Rackliff; I want no further dealings with you. And let me tell you before you go that if I find out you're up to any of your tricks Saturday I'll put the fellows wise. You can't frighten me into keeping still."
Herbert rose and walked to the door. "You poor, fawning dub!" he said. "You'll be blacking Eliot's boots next. I'm glad to be done with you. But don't forget what I said, it's fixed so Wyndham's dead sure to win Saturday. I'm going to bet every cent I can raise on it."
"Well, I'm glad I'm done with him!" muttered Roy, closing the door as Herbert went coughing down the gravel drive.
Rackliff turned through Lake Street toward the square in the center of the village, muttering to himself about Hooker, whom he now thoroughly despised as a "soft thing" and a "quitter." As he approached the Town Hall a low whistle like a signal reached his ears, and he saw a dark figure standing in the shadows near one corner of the building.
"It must be Springer," said Herbert. "Now we'll find out if he has any sand or is a quitter, too."
It was Springer, who spoke in a low tone as Herbert turned and drew near. "I thought it just as well for us not to meet where we would be seen," said Phil, "so I watched for you here, being pretty sure you'd come this way. There's a bub-bunch of the fellows down at Stickney's."
"Good!" returned Herbert. "I hope they've got their mazuma with them, for I've got my cash at last, and I'm on the warpath. It'll be just like finding money for me if they'll only give me a chance at them."
"You're just as confident as ever that Wyndham will win?"
"My boy, I tell you it's a cold cinch; it's fixed so that Wyndham can't lose."
"What do you mean by 'fixed'?"
Rackliff hesitated; recalling his late interview with Hooker, he decided that it would be unwise to tell Springer too much.
"Never you mind what I mean, old sport," he returned. "Leave it to me. I wasn't born yesterday. What these Joshuas around here have won off me already will serve nicely as bait. I'm bound to get them this time, and, as we're friends, I'm letting you in on the deal. After the rotten way you've been treated, it should make you feel well to get the chance. I'll place your loose coin on Wyndham, and not a soul need know about it until you're ready for him to know. Perhaps by and by, when this old baseball team is all to the punk, you'll feel like coming out openly and informing them that you've added to your bank account by betting against them; but, if you don't happen to feel that way, you can keep still and enjoy the fruits of your cleverness—which should be some satisfaction for the raw deal that's been handed out to you."
The fellow's words and manner were suave and seductive, and, if Phil had wavered, he now put his hesitation aside.
"Oh, I'm ready to take a ch-chance," he declared. "I want to see them done up, and I'm not at all averse to winning some money through their defeat. Wyndham has always had rather the better team at baseball or football, and I see no reason to believe she won't have this year."
"And every reason for believing she will have, considering the fact that a dandy like Dade Newbert is going to pitch for her. Wait till you see him in action; it will open your eyes. How much money have you got?"
Springer moved until the light of the street lamp in front of the postoffice over the way shone upon him, plunging his hand into his pocket and bringing up a lot of silver.
"Here's five dollars in ten-cent pieces," he said; "and I've got two dollars besides."
"Seven plunks, all told. But say, I hope you didn't get this chicken feed the way Hooker got his that he let me have to bet on the Barville game."
"Eh? How did he get it?"
"Stole it; swiped it off his own mother. What do you know about that, Bo?"
"Stole it!" cried Phil. "Well, you nun-needn't think I got mine that way! I'm no thief!"
"I should hope not. I'm not eager to chum with a fellow of that sort, and I've cut Hooker out; told him what I thought of him and quit him for good. He's too cheap for me." Herbert coughed behind his hand, his air one of great virtue and uprightness.
"These dimes came from my ten-cent bank," explained Springer. "I've been saving them one at a tut-time as I could spare them, and I had it pretty near full. When I mum-made up my mind to bet—or let you bet for me—I got enough to fill the bank and break it open; and that's why there are so many of them. Here they are; you can count them if you want to. And here's two dollars more."
Rackliff accepted the money and pocketed it "Don't suppose you want a receipt?" he asked, laughing.
"Nun-no," faltered Phil, suddenly realizing that Herbert could deny the whole transaction if he saw fit to do so, and that there would be no way of proving it had ever taken place. In spite of the fact that circumstances and mutual sympathies had led him into taking up with the city boy, he did not feel that a fellow of Herbert's stamp was wholly to be trusted.
"Nun-no," mocked Rackliff with an intonation of resentment. "I swear that was weak! I believe you are shaky. If so you'd better take your money back—quick."
"No, no," objected Springer. "It's all right. It was ju-just my rotten stammering, that's all. I wish I could break myself of it."
But suddenly Herbert grew very dignified. "We'll do this thing in a business-like way," he declared. "You don't know much about me, and a really square chap never gets haughty when he's asked to give some proof of his squareness. Just come over under the lamp."
Protesting, Phil followed; and the city boy, heedless of those protests, brought forth a pocket-notebook and pencil, scribbled an acknowledgement of the money on a leaf of the book, dashed his name at the bottom, tore the leaf out and handed it over.
"I insist," he said. "Now everything's all right. This is a wicked world, and every fellow who's dead wise has a right to take precautions. You say there's a bunch down by Stickney's, eh? Well, I think I'll meander down that way and see if I can't prod them into making a few wagers. Good night, old fel; sleep tight and don't worry about the chink you've let me handle. It will be an investment that'll pay a hundred per cent. in double-quick time."
It was a delightfully warm spring night, and there on the platform of Stickney's store, where the softened light from within shone upon them through a huge window, the boys had gathered. They were chatting, jesting, chaffing one another, and occasionally playing pranks, which once or twice started a squabble. As Rackliff sauntered up Chub Tuttle was complaining that nearly a pint of peanuts had been stolen from his pocket.
"Why don't you put Sleuth onter the case?" laughingly drawled Sile Crane. "He'll ketch the thief, for he's sartainly got Sherlock Holmes beat to a frazzle."
"My deduction is," said Piper, loudly shuffling his feet to drown the noise as he stealthily cracked a peanut, "that there are scoundrels in our very midst who would feel no compunction in swiping plugged money from a contribution box. Doubtless," he continued, deftly snapping the shelled kernels into his mouth, "the hands of those scoundrels are even now at work."
"Sleuthy's right," said Chipper Cooper, swiftly stowing away a handful of the peanuts which he had skillfully removed from Piper's coat pocket while the latter was speaking; "there are villyuns among us. Anyhow, there's liable to be one in a minute, unless we move." Apparently this concluding remark was caused by the appearance of Rackliff, who came strolling into the light of the window and paused.
Herbert looked them over. "Several prominent members of the great Oakdale baseball team, I observe," he said. "Been talking of the coming game, I presume."
"You're presuming, as usual," returned Cooper.
"That remark is very stale; I think I've heard you use it before. Your efforts at wit are painful. I suppose you're pretty confident, after beating both Barville and Clearport? Now I'm confident myself; I have confidence——"
"You look like a confidence man," interrupted Chipper.
"I have confidence," pursued Herbert, trying to ignore the little chap, "that Wyndham will win; and I'm ready to back my conviction with real money."
"Dinged if I didn't think yeou'd got abaout enough of it bating against Oakdale!" exclaimed Crane.
"Wonder where he gets so much money?" said Fred Sage.
"He's bluffing," was the opinion of Jack Nelson. "He's dead broke, but he wants to make believe that he's a dead game sport, and so——"
"If you think I'm dead broke," said Herbert, "and you can raise five or ten bones to wager on Oakdale, just produce the currency and watch me cover it. I have about twenty-five dollars I'd like to put up on Wyndham."
"Twenty-five dollars!" spluttered Tuttle. "That's some wealth for one fellow to be packing around."
"Go on," advised Crane, waving his long arm at Herbert; "don't bother us. We're tired takin' your spondulicks away from ye; it's too easy."
"You're quitters," declared Herbert with a cutting sneer. "There isn't one of you who has a real drop of sporting blood in his veins, that's what's the matter. You've won my money, and now, being pikers and quitters, you don't propose to give me a chance to win it back. You know Wyndham's going to put it all over you Saturday, and you're shivering in your shoes. I don't blame you for being frightened, as you haven't one chance in a hundred to take that game. It wouldn't surprise me if you were beaten about twenty or thirty to nothing; I sincerely hope it won't be worse than that."
Crane rose to his feet in the midst of this speech, which was far more provoking and insulting than cold type can convey.
"Looker here, yeou," cried Sile; "I've got some money I won batin' with you, and, by thut-ter! you'll find I ain't afraid to give ye all the chance you want on that Wyndham game. If you've really got twenty-five dollars, mebbe we can raise a pool, same as we done before, and cover the whole of it. I'll put in my share anyhaow. Who's the next feller?"
"Count me in!"
It seemed that they were all eager to contribute to the pool, and Herbert, smiling with self-complaisant satisfaction, felt that he had cleverly accomplished his purpose.
THE WYNDHAM PITCHER.
Shortly before nine o'clock on Saturday morning a touring car, containing three youths, not one of whom was over eighteen years of age, whirled up before the door of Mrs. Conway's boarding house in Oakdale and stopped.
The occupants of the car did not belong in Oakdale; they came from Wyndham, and the machine was the property of the father of the oldest one, who was at the wheel. This was Orville Foxhall, second baseman of the Wyndham nine. At Foxhall's side sat a husky, raw-boned, long-armed chap, Dade Newbert, the pitcher on which Wyndham placed great dependence. The chap in the tonneau was Joe Snead, too fat and indolent to take part in any game of an athletic nature.
"This is the house, Dade," said Foxhall; "this is where your friend boards, all right."
"Humph!" grinned Newbert. "It doesn't look swell enough to suit Herb's style. He's the real warm article, as you'll realize when you see him. When it comes to cutting a dash—well, Rack can cut it, you bet. I'll see if he's around."
Springing out, Newbert strode to the door and rang. After a time, as he was growing impatient and had prepared to ring again, the door opened a foot or so, and a tall, thin, hopeless-looking woman surveyed him inquiringly.
Newbert asked for Rackliff.
"Yes, he boards here," answered the woman in a mechanical tone of voice; "but he isn't up yet."
"Ho, ho!" laughed Newbert. "Isn't up? Well, that's like him; won't pull himself away from the mattress until he has to. He's a luxurious brat."
"I'm afraid Mr. Rackliff may not be feeling very well this morning," said the woman. "He has a very bad cold and coughs terribly. I told him last night that he should consult a doctor, and I heard him coughing the greater part of the night."
"Well, well! Sorry to hear it. I'm an old friend of his, and I've come over by appointment to take him back to Wyndham with me. You tell him that——"
A harsh cough came echoing down the stairs and a voice called:
"That you, Dade? Come right up. It's all right, Mrs. Conway; let him come, please."
Herbert, in silk pajamas, was standing at the head of the stairs, looking ill indeed. He put out a limp hand, which Newbert grasped, crying:
"By Jove! you are sick. Now, that's tough."
"Come into my room," invited Herbert, leading the way. "It's a pretty bum joint, but it's the best in the house—the best I could find in this wretched hole of a town. I'm mighty glad to see you, old pal, though I may not appear to be. Oh, blazes! but I have got a headache!"
"What have you been doing?" asked the visitor, as Herbert keeled over, with a groan, on the bed. "Been hitting the pace? Been attending too many hot suppers? Oh, but you're sure to sport wherever you go!"
"Hitting the pace around this graveyard!" mumbled Herbert dismally. "What are you talking about, old fel? Why, everybody dies here nights at nine o'clock; there's not a thing doing after that. It's the most forsaken, dismal place imaginable after that hour. I'm dying of dry rot, that's what's the matter." He finished with a cough that seemed to wrack him from head to feet.
"You're sick," said Newbert, with a show of sympathy. "You've got a cold, and it has settled on your lungs. You're none too strong, Herb, and you'd better look out. I guess you won't be able to take in the game to-day."
"Yes, I will!" cried Rackliff suddenly. "I wouldn't miss it for a fortune. Oh, I've got money bet on that game, Dade."
"Well, Orv Foxhall is outside with old man Foxhall's bubble. Great car, that. And you should see Orv drive her. Oh, he does cut it out some! He had 'em staring when he ripped up through the center of this old town. We nearly ran a team down back on the road; was going better than fifty when we came round a curve and grazed the old jay's wheel-hubs. I'll bet that Reuben's hair stood on its hind legs. Ho! ho! ho!"
Herbert sat up. "It won't take me long to dress," he said. "I'll go back to Wyndham with you."
"You haven't had any breakfast."
"Don't want any. Haven't had an appetite for three days. I caught this rotten cold riding a motorcycle back here from Clearport after the game last Saturday. I wouldn't mind if this cough didn't tear me so."
"It's tough," said Newbert. "Can I help you? Going to take a dip?"
"Boo! No, I won't bathe this morning; haven't got the nerve for a cold plunge, and a warm one might fix me so I'd catch more cold. Just you make yourself comfortable as you can while I'm getting into my duds."
Three times while dressing Herbert was compelled to sit down to rest, and Newbert declared that his friend seemed to be pretty nearly "all in."
"I certainly am," agreed Rackliff; "I'm up against it. Never was knocked out like this before. Why, I can't even smoke a cigarette, it makes me bark so. You can imagine how tough that is on me. Sometimes I'm half crazy for a smoke—I'm shaking all over; but when I try it I just have to quit by the time I've taken three whiffs."
"You've smoked too many of those things, that's what's the matter. Used to hit 'em up myself; thought it real devilish. Never took any real satisfaction in it, though."
"That was because you didn't inhale; they're no good unless you do."
"They're no good if you do; give me a cigar every time."
"You got my last letter all right?" asked Herbert, selecting a necktie from his abundant supply.
"Oh, sure. I've put all the bunch wise, too. They're wondering how I got hold of the information, but I didn't give you away, old pal. I reckon mebbe Foxy and Snead suspect now, but they won't say anything."
"You've got to win," said Herbert, carefully knotting his tie at the mirror. "My old man is kicking over being touched up for cash so often; says he can't see how I spend so much in this quiet place. I've bet every sou of the last amount he sent me on your old baseball team, and if you don't take this game——"
"We will, don't worry about that. We could have done so anyhow, but of course you've helped make it a dead-cold certainty. If you've got any friends here who——"
"Friends!" sneered Rackliff; "friends among these country yokels! Don't make me laugh, for it might start me coughing again."
"But you said you let a chap in on the Barville deal. He——"
"He wasn't a friend of mine," said Herbert scornfully; "he was only a chap I wanted to use. I've let another dub into this deal, but I didn't do so simply to befriend him—not on your natural. Perhaps you've heard of him—Phil Springer. He expected to be the star slab artist on the great Oakdale nine this season, but he unwisely coached another fellow to assist him as second-string pitcher, and now the other man has pushed him into second place—and he has quit, dead sore. He's an egotistical yap, and it simply killed him to death to have his pupil step right over his head."
"What's your idea in boosting him by putting him next to a winning proposition?"
"Perhaps I can use him, too. At any rate, he can pitch some, and by keeping him raw and working him the way I am, I'm weakening the pitching staff. See?"
"Oh, yes," muttered Newbert. "I swear you're a clever schemer, Herb."
"Thanks. You see, I induced this man Springer to let me have seven bones to bet against Oakdale, and now, no matter how much they may happen to need him, as long as he has his money at stake, they can't coax him into the game to-day. They may try to do that if you fellows get to batting Grant good and plenty. Oh, I've taken pains to forestall in every direction, for I've simply got to make a killing on this go. How's the weather?"
"Fine, but you'll need to wear an overcoat in the auto. I didn't take one, but it's rather cool whistling through the air at the rate Foxy drives. Besides, you've got to look out for that cold. Better wear a cloth overcoat now than a wooden one by and by."
"Don't talk that way," shivered Herbert. "I'm not anxious to shuffle off."
He brought his overcoat from the wardrobe, and Newbert helped him into it, after which they descended the stairs together.
THE PLUNGE FROM THE BRIDGE.
Herbert was introduced to Foxhall and Snead. The former, with goggles pushed up on his forehead, pulled off his gauntlet glove to shake hands, saying he was mighty glad to meet Dade Newbert's chum, of whom he'd heard so much from Newbert's lips.
"Yes," gurgled Snead, as he also shook hands; "according to Dade, you're a warm old scout. Get right in here with me, and hang on when Foxy turns on the juice, for there'll be something doing. I imagine we'll touch only a few of the very elevated spots on our way back, judging by the way he cut it out coming over. If you're nervous——"
"Don't worry about me," said Rackliff, as he settled himself beside the fat fellow. "I'm simply dying for something to stir up my blood and set it circulating."
Foxhall adjusted his goggles, switched on the current, and pressed a button that started the engine.
"Ho! ho! We're off!" cried Newbert. "Just watch 'em rubber when we zip down through town. There's a bump this side of the bridge; hang on when we strike it, Herb."
Foxhall turned the car, yanking it round in a see-saw that was hard on transmission and brakes and tires, and started with a jerk that gave a snap to the necks of his three companions, cutting out the muffler as he shifted swiftly through the gears into direct drive. When the main street was reached the reckless youth scarcely slowed down at all to take the turn, and the car came near skidding into the gutter.
"Isn't he the careless creature!" laughed Snead. "He always drives this way, and he's never had an accident."
Past Roger Eliot's home and the white Methodist church they whizzed, the automobile gathering speed on the down grade and obtaining enough momentum to carry it a considerable distance even though the power should be cut off and the brakes applied sufficiently hard to lock the rear wheels. With the discordant electric horn snarling a demand for a clear road, the foolish young driver tore up the dust through the very heart of the village, regardless of his own safety and absolutely ignoring the safety or rights of others. The postoffice spun by on the left; the machine shot across the small square; down the steepest grade of the hill it flew toward the bridge.
Despite the fact that he pretended to be as serene and unconcerned as his companions, who, perhaps, did not realize the danger, Herbert Rackliff was not fully at his ease; for he knew that such driving through a place where there were intersecting streets with blind corners was folly indeed.
As the bridge was approached the road swung to the left. At the very end of the bridge an old building cut off the view of the greater part of the structure from any one approaching from the main portion of the village.
The "bump" of which Newbert had given warning was struck with sufficient force to send the boys bouncing from their seats, and the shock seemed to disturb Foxhall's hold on the steering wheel, for the car swerved unpleasantly. The young driver brought it back with a yank, and then——
"Look out!" screamed Herbert, jumping up in the tonneau.
A woman of middle age, seated in a rickety old wagon, with a child on either side of her, was driving a young and half-broken horse into Oakdale. The young horse snorted, attempted to turn round, and then began to back up, cramping the wagon across the bridge. The woman struggled vainly with the reins, in a perfect panic of terror, and the children screamed, clinging to her.
Foxhall knew he could not stop the car, and to his credit let it be said that he did his best to avoid striking and smashing the wagon—and succeeded. Success, however, was costly; for, in attempting to turn aside and shoot past, the wheel was pulled too sharply, and the machine struck the wooden railing of the bridge, through which it cut as if the railing had been built of cardboard.
Dade Newbert was the only one who managed to leap from the machine ere it crashed through that railing and shot off in a clean leap for the water below. Unimpeded by any barrier, Newbert jumped, struck the ground, plunged forward, and went sliding at full length almost beneath the wheels of the old wagon. Rackliff tried to jump, but he was on the wrong side, and the tonneau door bothered him; however, as the machine fell, with Snead sitting paralyzed in his place and Foxhall clinging to the wheel, Herbert succeeded in flinging himself out over the side.
Surprising to relate, Dade Newbert was not seriously hurt, and, still retaining a certain presence of mind, he scrambled back from the wagon wheels and sat up on the bridge, covered with dirt, a rather woe-begone spectacle. He was still sitting thus when the horse, having turned about at last without upsetting the wagon, went galloping away across the bridge; and he continued to sit there until some boys came running down from the village, shouting as they ran, and asked him if he was hurt.
Then Dade scrambled up. "Oh, mercy!" he gasped. "Don't mind me. I'm all right. The other fellers—they'll be drowned!"
He ran to the side of the bridge and looked over. Foxhall was swimming toward the nearest bank, with Snead puffing and blowing behind him; but Rackliff, who had struck on his stomach sufficiently hard to have the breath knocked out of him, was being carried away by the current, struggling feebly.
With the idea of leaping in to help Herbert, Newbert pulled off his coat; but before he could make the plunge some one flung him aside with the sweep of a muscular arm and went shooting headlong like an arrow toward the surface of the river.
People were running toward the bridge from various directions. Some of the boys started down to help the swimmers out when they should reach the shore; but no one else ventured to plunge into the river.
The one who had made that unhesitating plunge was Rodney Grant. Springer, who had reached the spot a moment ahead of Rod, saw Grant as he shot downward with hands outstretched and palms pressed together.
"Wh-why didn't I do it?" muttered Phil. "I didn't th-think quick enough."
He saw Grant's head appear above the surface and beheld the Texan striking out toward Rackliff with strong strokes that sent him forging through the water. The gathering crowd on the bridge began to cheer the rescuer.
"Of course!" whispered Phil savagely. "It's another feather in his cap! He'll help the chap out of the drink, and everybody in town will say it was a nervy and daring piece of heroism. Oh, I'm slow! I lost my chance!"
At that moment his bitterness toward Grant was so intense that he felt he could unhesitatingly go to any extreme to injure him. His lips curled back from his teeth in a semblance of a snarl; he watched the Texan reach the spot where Rackliff's head had an instant before disappeared from view, saw him likewise plunge beneath the surface, and beheld him rise, farther down the stream, with the still weakly struggling fellow secured by a grip upon his coat collar at the back of the neck. Deftly the rescuer swung Herbert round, face upward, upon his back, and, holding him thus, with mouth and nose above the water, began swimming toward the nearest shore.
The rapidly increasing crowd of spectators on the bridge cheered still more vociferously.
"It's getting to be a regular sus-stunt of his, this rescuing people from drowning," muttered Springer. "Hear them yell! Bah! What fools people are! Why didn't I think quick enough to get ahead of him!"
A short distance below the bridge Foxhall was wading out of the water, disdaining assistance. Snead, however, did not spurn the hands extended to him when he came floundering and gurgling toward dry ground.
A dozen persons were running down toward the point for which Rodney Grant was heading, all eager to take some part in the exciting rescue. Of the boys who had rushed to the scene, Springer was the only one who remained on the bridge. He waited until he beheld Grant stand on his feet in shallow water and wade toward the bank, bearing Rackliff in his arms.
"I don't propose to hang around and see them slobber over him," he whispered hoarsely; "so I think I'll beat it, get a move on, dig."
As he turned away his eyes fell on a folded sheet of paper lying at his feet, and within three feet of the paper he discovered a pocket notebook. He picked up the paper and the notebook.
"Some one of that bunch dropped these," he decided. "Oh, but they were lucky to come out of this scrape alive! I think this will cuc-cure that idiot Foxhall of doing fancy stunts with his old man's gas cart."
Mechanically he unfolded the paper. There was writing upon it, and Phil was suddenly chained in his tracks as his senses took in the meaning of those several short sentences, each of which was written on a separate line:
"Bat held in right hand means hit and run.
"In left hand, try the steal.
"In both hands, perpendicular, play safe.
"In both hands, horizontal, will sacrifice.
"In right hand, handle down, squeeze play."
This was as far as Phil read, but the list covered the entire page, being condensed, with the lines very close together, at the bottom, evidently in order to get everything on that side of the sheet. Springer's eyes threatened to pop out of his head and his under jaw sagged.
"Great snakes!" he gasped. "These are our playing signals!"
For a short time he stood there dazed, unconscious of the excitement near at hand, deaf to the cheering of the crowd. He had thought at first that the paper, like the notebook, must be the property of one of those boys who had occupied the automobile, but, with the discovery of what was written on that paper, he slowly arrived at the conclusion that his original conviction was erroneous. The writing looked familiar, too, although at that time he could not seem to recall the person whose chirography it resembled.
"The notebook," he finally decided; "that may tell who it belongs to, for doubtless the same chap dropped both."
On the fly leaf of the notebook he found the name of Dade Newbert. He had refolded the paper, and was still staring at the name written in the notebook when Newbert himself, greatly excited, rushed toward him, crying:
"I say, that's mine! Dropped it out of my coat pocket when I pulled the coat off. Give it to me."
He was still carrying his coat in his hand.
"Then you're Nun-Newbert, are you?" questioned Springer, who until this day had never set eyes on the chap.
"Yes, yes. Gimme that! The paper, too. Have you——"
"Just picked them up," said Springer coolly, as he surrendered the folded paper. "Lul-looked in the book to see who it belonged to, that's all."
Newbert seemed to take a breath of relief. "I didn't know but you had been—— Oh, fudge! I dropped them only a minute ago. Say, we've kicked up a rumpus around here, haven't we? That fellow who pulled Rack out of the drink saved me from getting a soaking, as I was just going overboard after Herb. Rack thought he wouldn't take a bath this morning, but he did, just the same. Ho! ho! ho!" The cause for the laugh seemed to be nervousness and excitement rather than mirth.
"Rackliff!" muttered Springer, struck by sudden conviction.
"Old chum of mine. Don't suppose this little experience will do his cold any good, I got Orv Foxhall to come over here for Herb this morning with old man Foxy's bubble that's down there at the bottom of the canal, where it's liable to stay for some time. I reckon we'll all travel back to Wyndham by steam cars." He turned and ran toward the crowd that was coming up from the scene of the rescue.
"Rackliff!" muttered Springer once more.
He knew now who had written those signals on that sheet of paper.
A REBELLIOUS CONSCIENCE.
The game between Oakdale and Wyndham was in progress, and, wretchedly miserable, Phil Springer sat watching from the bleachers. Never before in all his life had he felt so much like a contemptible criminal, a dastardly traitor to his team, against which, through the agency of Herbert Rackliff, he had wagered money. It was not, however, the fact that he had made such a wager that troubled him most, although at this moment, deep down in his heart, he was sincerely ashamed of that.
The principal cause of his misery, the reason why he kept telling himself over and over that he was a cowardly sneak, was his knowledge that the playing signals of the visitors had been betrayed to the home team, and that, taking advantage of the knowledge thus obtained, Wyndham was prepared to block Oakdale's every play, and was doing this in a manner which appeared to the average spectator like almost uncanny foresight and cleverness at the game.
In the very first inning, with only one out and a runner on third, the Oakdale batter, taking his instructions from Captain Eliot, had walked out to the plate with the bat held in his right hand, handle downward, which was the signal for the squeeze play. But Wyndham had known what was coming quite as well as Oakdale, and Newbert, pitching the ball beyond the batsman's reach, gave the catcher every chance to get the runner as he came lunging hopelessly toward the pan.
The second inning, also, had opened promisingly for Oakdale, but the enemy's knowledge of the meaning of those signals had made it a simple matter to bring that auspicious opening to a fruitless and discouraging close.
Meanwhile Wyndham got a run in the first, and in the third she pushed two more happy fellows over the rubber, aided by errors; for Grant was pitching in excellent form, and not a tally of the three was really earned.
The sight of Roy Hooker, wearing Springer's own suit and sitting on the bench as a spare pitcher, did not serve in any way to make Phil more comfortable. He knew that by every bond of loyalty and decency he should be there himself when he was not working on the slab. Like some other fellows, in the past he had occasionally laughed and joked about Roy's aspirations to become a pitcher; but now, at last having gotten his eyes open to some of his faults, and having succeeded in restraining his jealousy of others who were in some respects his superiors, Hooker was pursuing a course that had already led him to be accepted in place of the deserter.
Phil held himself aloof from the crowd of sympathizers with the team who had come over from Oakdale to root for the crimson; he did not even wear the school colors. When he saw them waving their bright banners and heard them cheering he thought, with a heavy heart and no feeling of satisfaction, that they little knew how utterly useless their enthusiasm was. The game was fixed; the cards were stacked, and there was no chance for Oakdale to win.
He bit his lip as he saw Grant working steadily and coolly on the slab, doing splendidly, little dreaming that, as the situation stood, he might "wallop his wing off" with scarcely a ghost of a prospect that Oakdale could overcome the lead the locals had already obtained.
"I'm glad—as far as he is concerned," Springer whispered to himself; "but I'm sus-sorry for the rest of the fellows. It's a rotten piece of business, and Rackliff ought to be ashamed of himself."
Where was Rackliff? He knew Herbert had come to Wyndham after changing his clothes for dry ones, following his rescue from the river by Grant, but Phil had not put eyes on the fellow since his arrival on the scene of the game. It seemed very strange that Rackliff should not be somewhere on hand to watch the progress of the contest.
"One thing is sure," was the promise the unhappy youth made himself, "I'll tell him just what I think of him when I get a good chance, and I won't mum-mince my words. Oh, I wish I'd never let him have that money to bet on Wyndham! If I hadn't done that——"
He stopped short, thinking that, even though he had not wagered his money, his hatred for Rod Grant and his desire to see the fellow pitch a losing game would be sufficient to keep him silent concerning the betrayal of the signals. He sought to convince himself that, as he was not concerned in that wretched piece of work, he was in no way responsible. His rebellious conscience, however, kept prodding him with the knowledge that he was "an accessory to the crime."
Again and again he longed to rise and shout a warning to Eliot—yearned to tell him loudly, that all might hear, that Wyndham knew Oakdale's signals. If he were to do such a thing as that—do it dramatically before that great crowd—would it not serve to restore him to sudden popularity with the fellows who now held him in contempt because of the petty, peevish, jealous course he had pursued?
"I wish they'd ha-hammer Grant out," he muttered. "If they'd only do that, I'd warn Eliot. Of course I wouldn't give it away that I knew abub-bout the crookedness all the time, for that would queer me worse than ever. I've got to kuk-keep that a dark secret, sure enough."
He wondered what explanation he could make if he should warn Eliot; surely he would have to tell how he came to believe that Wyndham was wise to the signals of her opponents. There seemed only one reasonable story for him to put forward: he would be compelled to claim that he had overheard some persons in the crowd telling each other that such was the case.
And that would be a lie!
"I lied once on account of that fellow Grant, and got caught at it," thought Phil. "If I should tell Eliot now, Rackliff might—— But he doesn't know that I know he gave our signals to Wyndham. Still, if I come out publicly and warn Roger, Rackliff may get sore and blow around that part of the money he bet on Wyndham belonged to me."
Thus, wavering, tortured and miserable, he followed the progress of the game, realizing more and more as it went on that Oakdale had absolutely no chance at all while the players of the other side could see and understand every batting and base-running signal that was given. Fighting against such odds without knowledge of the fact seemed to Phil to be a most outrageous thing, and he pledged himself that, from this day forward, he would have no more dealings with Rackliff.
As it was not necessary for the first batter in an inning to signal, Wyndham could not "lay for him" by the aid of knowledge gained in advance, and to open the fourth Sile Cane strode forth and fell on one of Newbert's slants, straightening it out handsomely for two sacks.
Grant, following, took his cue from Eliot and signalled Crane that he would bunt, on which sacrifice the lanky fellow was to take third.
Springer's teeth grated together as he beheld the entire Wyndham infield prepare to handle Rod's bunt, while Newbert drove Josh back and held him as close as possible to the second sack. Suddenly the ball was whipped over the pan, high and close, in spite of which the batter succeeded in sending it rolling heavily into the diamond. But Newbert, racing forward as soon as the sphere left his fingers, scooped it cleanly with one hand and snapped it across to third without straightening up. The baseman was covering the sack in a position to get the long-geared runner, and, catching the ball, he put it on to Crane with considerable viciousness as Josh slid.
"Out at third!" shouted the umpire, with up-flung hand.
The attempted sacrifice had been turned into a miserable failure solely because the locals had known precisely what their opponents would try to do.
"I can't stand much more of this!" groaned Springer aloud. "It's worse than robbery! I'll have to get out."
Hearing the words, a rejoicing Wyndham sympathizer slapped him heavily on the shoulder. "Don't take it so hard," laughingly advised the familiar fellow. "It's just what everybody expected."
"Oh, is that so?" snapped Phil resentfully, turning his head to look up at the chap. "Well, if this was a square game they might get their expectations stepped on."
"A square game!" retorted the other. "What do you mean by that? What's the matter with it? So far, it's the cleanest game I've seen this year.
"It's the dirtiest game I ever saw! It's cuc-crooked from the start. Oakdale hasn't a sus-show."
"Of course she hasn't; she's outclassed. You Oakdalers are poor losers; you always squeal."
"Outclassed—nothing!" fumed Phil. "Oakdale is playing just as good baseball as Wyndham—and playing it on the level."
"And by that I suppose you mean that Wyndham isn't playing on the level?"
"You don't have to gug-guess twice; that's what I mean."
"Oh, go crawl into your hole! There hasn't been a kick. Anybody can see that we're playing all round you simply because we've got the best team. Dade Newbert is a dandy."
"Yes, he's a dandy at this sort of baseball. I happen to know just what he is, and a fellow who'll do what he's dud-done to win this game hasn't any right to pitch on a respectable nine."
"You're dotty. Look here, you better be careful about shooting off that sort of talk, or you may have a chance to prove it."
"I can bub-back up anything I've said," declared Phil, now thoroughly aroused. "I'm dead onto the whole dirty deal. If I should tell Roger Eliot what I know you'd sus-see a change in the complexion of this game in short order."
"Oh, really!" scoffed the incredulous Wyndhamite. "If you know so much, why don't you tell it? If you know anything that amounts to anything, you'll tell it—unless you're crooked yourself."
That cut deeply, and Springer choked back further heated words which were boiling to his lips. What right had he to rail against Newbert? Under the circumstances, his failure to warn his former teammates made him fully as dishonest and deserving of contempt as the Wyndham pitcher—far more so. The white anger of his face turned to a crimson flush of shame.
Silenced, he saw Wyndham, ready to block the hit and run, take Cooper's zipping grounder and turn into a double play what possibly might otherwise have been a safety. In that moment Springer's mind was made up, and he immediately left his seat on the bleachers.
"I'll tell Eliot the truth at any cost," he muttered.
WHEN THE SIGNALS WERE CHANGED.
While Phil Springer was making his way round to the Oakdale side of the field an accident took place. The first Wyndham batter to face Grant in that inning hit the ball squarely and hard, driving it on a dead line toward the pitcher, but a trifle to his right. Grant might have dodged, but, instead of that, he tried to catch that red-hot liner with his bare right hand, and the ball split two of his fingers. Nevertheless, he stopped it, caught it up with his left hand when it fell to the ground, and tossed it to Sile Crane at first in time for a put-out.
Rod showed his blood-streaming hand to the umpire, who promptly called "time." Then the Texan walked toward the bench, Eliot running to join him.
"How bad are you hurt, old man?" asked the captain anxiously.
"I don't know," was the answer. "Didn't know I was hurt at all until I saw the claret spouting; reckoned my paw was benumbed a bit, and that was all."
But when water was poured over those bleeding fingers and Roger saw just what had happened to them, he turned quickly to Hooker, saying in a low tone:
"Get a ball, Hook, and warm up. You'll have to pitch the game out."
A doctor pressed through the crowd that had surrounded the injured player.
"Fix these busted fingers up quick, doc," urged Grant, "so I can get back into the game without delaying things too long."
"You'll play no more baseball to-day, my boy," said the physician; "nor for some days to come. You're out of it, and you may as well accept the alternative with good grace."
And so Springer saw Hooker go in to pitch, aware that only for his jealousy and blind folly he would have been the one called upon to replace the injured chap.
"Serves me right," he muttered. Which was proof sufficient that he was getting his eyes open.
Naturally, Hooker was very nervous, although secretly elated by the opportunity to pitch in this most important game. Eliot talked with him a moment or two about signals, finishing by placing a hand on his shoulder and saying:
"Now, keep cool, Hook, and take your time. Mind my signals, and do your best for control. It's your chance to show the stuff that's in you. Don't be afraid of Wyndham, and don't listen to the crowd. Close your ears and eyes to everything outside of the game. You may surprise yourself and everybody else, if you keep your head."
There was something in Roger's words and manner that proved very steadying to Roy, and he toed the slab with an outward show of confidence, whether or not he was inwardly perturbed. The majority of the Oakdale players were much cast down, however, and it was a rather feeble and heartless cheer that the rooters with the crimson banners gave the substitute pitcher.
Hooker pitched two balls wide, and then put one over; which the batsman hit, rolling a grounder into the diamond for Chipper Cooper to handle. Chipper managed to get it and wing it across to Crane for a clean put-out.
"Two gone, fellows," called Eliot. "We'll keep right on playing baseball. Get this next man, now."
The next man hoisted a long fly to center, where Ben Stone, sure as fate, took charge of it; and Hooker, now really quite calm and confident, jogged to the bench.
"See if you can't start something, Sleuth," urged Roger as Piper found his bat. "We've got to make some runs pretty soon, and we may as well begin now."
Springer, walking swiftly out to the bench, spoke Eliot's name. "I want a few words with you, Roger," he said; "I've gug-gug-got something—something important to—to tell you." He stumbled more than usual over his words, and his face was very pale; but his manner was resolute and determined.
A slight frown fell on the face of the Oakdale captain as he turned his eyes upon the speaker. "What is it, Springer?" he asked almost repellantly.
"Just sus-step one side a bit so I can tell you without anybody else hearing," begged Phil.
Roger complied, lending an ear to the startling information Springer had to impart, but, after his usual composure, retaining his self-possessed atmosphere to such a degree that scarcely any one who chanced to be watching them could have dreamed how disturbing that information really was.
"How do you happen to know about this, Phil?" Eliot asked.
"Don't ask me. I can't tut-tell you now. But it's dead straight, Roger, and Oakdale hasn't a ghost of a show as long as you continue to stick by those signals."
"We'll change them right away."
Piper had succeeded in bumping a slow grounder into the diamond, on which he scudded for first with amazing speed, for he was really a splendid sprinter. The ball was handled a bit too slowly, giving the Oakdale lad time to reach the sack by the narrowest margin.
"Never mind that, fellows," grinned Orv Foxhall from his position at second. "I'll get him when he comes down this way. He may be pretty speedy, but——"
"He won't run off the bridge," cried Cooper, on the coaching line. "Your speed has made you pawn things more than once, and now you've gone and soaked your daddy's automobubble."
"Bright boy," scoffed Foxhall. "I always enjoy it when you make a choke, but I'd enjoy it more if you'd make one that would finish you."
Sile Crane came running down from the bench, catching Cooper by the shoulders and whispering something into his ear. Chipper looked surprised, and then, as Crane was jogging back, in violation of the rules, the coacher ran out to first, grabbed Piper and whispered to him.
"Hey?" gasped Sleuth, staring at Chub Tuttle, who was walking to the plate with his bat held in a manner which seemed to indicate that he would bunt the ball. "What's the——"
"Shut up!" hissed Chipper. "Mind! Get a lead now! Be ready!" Then he skipped back over the chalk-mark before the umpire could order him back.