The Wyndham infielders crept forward, crouching and ready. Newbert, contemptuous of Tuttle's skill as a batter, handed up an easy one. Instead of bunting, the fat lad rapped out a little fly, that sailed over the heads of the in-drawn infielders, and Cooper, having obtained a good start, went twinkling over second and on to third.
Wyndham had been deceived, much to the annoyance of the local players, who looked at one another inquiringly. It was rather remarkable that Tuttle had not followed his own signal, plainly given. It was possible, however, that, seeing the infielders prepared to take his bunt, the fellow had decided at the last moment to do something else.
Nelson followed Tuttle, and he held his bat in a manner that seemed to proclaim he would "take one," giving Chub a chance to try to steal second on the first ball pitched. Believing this was the program, Newbert whipped over a beautiful straight ball for a called strike.
But Nelson did not let that handsome one pass; it was just the kind he liked, and he fell on it with great glee, smashing a liner into the outfield, between right and center.
Piper, laughing, scored at a jog trot; while Tuttle, his fists clenched, his eyes glaring, his cheeks puffed out like toy balloons, galloped over the sacks with all the grace of a frightened elephant.
"Score, Chub—score!" shrieked Crane, who had pranced down onto the coaching line back of third, and who was waving his long arms grotesquely. "Make it or bust! You kin do it!"
Tuttle continued to the plate, where, raising a great cloud of dust, he arrived on an attempted slide, a moment ahead of the ball, being declared safe.
The Wyndham crowd was filled with dismay; the Oakdalers with the crimson banners were leaping and shrieking on the bleachers. The local players knew something was wrong, and they showed the greatest confusion and consternation. Dade Newbert was making some remarks that would not look well in print.
Captain Eliot had instructed his players to abandon the use of signals for the time being, and to bat and run bases wholly as their judgment might dictate, and this sudden change threatened totally to demoralize the Wyndhamites.
Not a man was out, and the visitors, having already secured two tallies, had a runner moored at third. Berlin Barker stepped forth briskly, urging the umpire to keep the game in motion, his bat held as if he intended to try for a safe bingle. As matters stood, it seemed logical that he should do this, and the Wyndhamites got ready for him.
But Berlin, trusting the speedy Nelson to take advantage of it, bunted the first ball. His confidence in Nelson was not misplaced, Jack sprinting to the plate, while the baffled home players bestirred themselves too late even to get Barker, whose bunt went for a safe hit.
The score was tied.
Foxhall, rushing up to Newbert, whispered excitedly:
"They've changed their signals! That's what's fooling us. We've got to——"
There was a yell. Observing that second base was left practically unguarded, Barker scooted down from first, and he got there ahead of the shortstop, who made an effort to cover the sack.
"This is a great year for high flying," laughingly whooped Cooper. "Ten thousand feet in an aeroplane isn't so much; why, this whole Wyndham bunch is up in the air higher than that this very minute. They're liable to come down hard, too."
Like Foxhall, the Wyndham captain had decided that Oakdale was no longer using the known code of batting and base-running signals, and he made haste to warn his players to place no further reliance upon the information they had obtained concerning those signals.
"We want another run to take the lead, Stoney," said Eliot as Ben stepped into the batter's box.
Stone took in the situation and also did the unexpected, dropping another bunt in front of the pan. The catcher got the ball in time to throw Stone out, but the batter's object was obtained, for Barker had sailed along to third.
The Oakdaleites on the seats implored Eliot to get a hit, and Roger responded by cutting a grounder through into short right field, which let Barker score and placed the visitors in the lead.
Newbert's face was white as chalk. Up to this inning he had been insolent in his self-confidence and contempt for the visitors, but the strain now put upon him proved too much, and he hit Crane in the ribs, following with a pass to Hooker, which filled the corners.
Then, amid the tumultuous cheering and laughter of the Oakdale crowd. Captain Holley sent Newbert to the bench and called Twitt Crowell forth to take his place.
PHIL GETS HIS EYES OPEN
"Too bad little Herbie Rackliff isn't here to witness the fate of his chum, the wonderful pitcher from Boston," laughed Jack Nelson.
"Where is Rackliff?" questioned Stone.
"Why, don't you know? He's sick abed; just went down flat after reaching this town, and had to have a doctor."
With the bases full, Chipper Cooper longed for a handsome clean drive; but fortune seemed to favor Crowell, for when Chipper did hit the ball he simply rolled it straight at the man on the slab, who scooped it and snapped it back to the catcher with Eliot only a little more than halfway down the line from third. Taking the ball, with one foot on the plate, the catcher hummed it past Cooper's ear to first, completing a double play.
Of course the downcast Wyndhamites awoke and cheered, but the visitors, although disappointed by the abrupt ending of their "streak," felt very well satisfied.
"Now keep steady and play the game, boys," called Eliot. "This is the game we want to win."
Springer, literally a-tingle with joy over the turn the game had taken, watched Hooker, who was given excellent support, pull through the fifth without letting more than one man reach first base.
"I'm glad," muttered Phil. "I don't care if it does cost me seven dollars, for Wyndham deserves to be beaten."
Eliot, removing his cage at the end of the inning, looked for Springer and found him. "Come here, Phil," he called, beckoning.
Phil hesitated, more than half disposed to pretend that he did not hear and to get away from that locality at once; but, realizing he would find it necessary to face Roger's questions sooner or later, he finally plucked up courage to answer the summons. Greatly to his relief, the captain of the nine did not question him then; instead of that, Roger said:
"I'm much obliged to you, old fellow, for putting me wise, although I'm ashamed that I didn't tumble to the fact myself. I hope we can win this game now; we must win it somehow. Grant is knocked out for some time to come, and there's only Hooker left to depend on. If anything happens to Hook, it's all off; there's no one to take his place."
Suddenly Phil understood what Roger was driving at, and his pale face flamed with color. "If I can——" he began eagerly, and then stopped, choking a bit.
"I thought so!" exclaimed Roger, with great satisfaction; "I thought you must be still loyal and true. I've got to pay close attention to the run of the game. Won't you find Grant and ask him to let you have his suit? Get into it as soon as you can, and hurry back here; for Wyndham is liable to solve Hook's delivery any minute. Hustle, old chap—do."
With this admonition, he turned to give his attention to his players.
"Still loyal and true!" muttered Phil. "If he only knew the truth! Well, I suppose he'll find out before long, for Rackliff will blow on me. I'll have to face it, that's all. I wonder wh-where Grant is."
A few moments later he found the fellow he was seeking, the doctor having just finished bandaging Rod's injured fingers. Springer hesitated, feeling that it was almost impossible for him to approach the Texan, and, as he was wavering, Grant, still wearing his playing suit, started for the Oakdale bench.
"I—I bub-beg your pardon," stammered Phil as Rodney was passing.
"Oh!" exclaimed the young Texan, stopping short. "Is it you—Phil? What's the matter?"
"I—want—your—suit." Springer could not meet Rod's eyes, and he could feel his cheeks burning; for over him had swept a full and complete understanding of his own folly in permitting jealousy to lead him into the course he had been pursuing.
"My—my suit?" said Rod, as if he did not quite understand. "You——"
"Eliot sus-sent me for it," Phil hastened to explain. "You know he hasn't a spare man on the bench now, and if anything should happen to another pup-player——"
"Come on," said Rod, turning sharply. "The dressing room is over back of the seats here."
In the dressing room Grant got out of the playing suit as quickly as possible, while Springer stripped off his street clothes and unhesitatingly donned each piece as it was tossed to him. Both were silent, for the situation was such that neither could seem to find words to fit it. However, having put on Rod's clothes down to the brass-clipped pitching shoes and being on the point of leaving the Texan struggling slowly into his everyday garments, Phil stopped and half turned, after taking a step toward the door.
"I'm sus-sorry you got your fingers busted," he stated in a low tone.
"Thanks," returned Rod, without looking up.
"He despises me," whispered Springer, as soon as he was outside. "Well, perhaps I deserve it."
At the end of the tiered seats he came upon Herbert Rackliff, who had just arrived at the field. Herbert's eyes widened on beholding Springer in that suit. His face was pale save for two burning spots upon his hollow cheeks.
"What the dickens does this mean?" exclaimed Rackliff, his wondering eyes flashing over Phil from head to heels.
"Nothing," was the answer, "only Grant's hurt, and I'm going onto the bub-bench as spare man—at Eliot's request."
An odd smile twisted Rackliff's lips. "Now wouldn't that kill you dead!" he coughed. "At Eliot's request! Ha! ha! ha! If he only knew! But of course he doesn't suspect, for I haven't given you away. Well, this is a joke!"
"I'm in a hurry, so I'll hustle along."
"Wait a jiffy. I've just got here. Sort of went to pieces after landing in this town, and they stowed me in bed, with a pill-slinger looking at my tongue, taking my pulse and asking a lot of tiresome questions. He even sounded my lungs, though I protested against it. And then he told me I was to stay in bed, and left a lot of nasty medicine for me to take. I stayed in bed as long as I could, knowing this game was going on. Now that I'm here, how does it stand?"
"Your great pup-pitcher, Newbert, was batted out in the fifth inning."
"What's that? I don't believe it!"
"It's a fact."
"The score—what's the score?"
"It was four to three in Oakdale's favor at the end of the fifth."
"Rotten!" snarled Herbert, and a tempestuous burst of coughing shook him frightfully.
When Phil started away the still coughing lad grasped his arm and restrained him.
"You—you wait!" gasped Rackliff. "Wyndham must win this game—she just must, that's all. Did you say Grant was hurt?"
"Enough to knock him out; he got two fingers busted by a liner hot from the bub-bat."
"Good! Then I suppose that dub Hooker is pitching now?"
"Well, if I had any more money I'd be willing to bet the limit that Wyndham gets to him, all right. He'll get his."
"Perhaps not. He fuf-finished the fifth in style."
"He'll get his," repeated Herbert positively. "Then you'll be run in. That's why Eliot wants you. That will fix things beautifully. You know what to do."
"Yes, I know what to do," said Phil slowly, "and I shall do it if I get the chance."
"That's the talk! You can do it cleverly enough so no one will suspect that you're throwing the game, and we'll win——"
"If I'm put in to pitch," said Springer, still uttering his words in that slow and positive manner, "I shall do my level best to hold Wyndham down and give Oakdale a chance to win the game."
"You—you'll what?" spluttered Rackliff incredulously. "Why, you're joking! Your money, seven dollars which you gave me, is bet on Wyndham. If Oakdale wins you lose the seven."
"If I could do anything to help Oakdale win, I'd do it, even if I stood to lose seven hundred dollars by it," declared Phil.
THE GREATEST VICTORY.
The sixth inning was over before Springer reached the Oakdale bench. He found the boys in high spirits, for they had gathered two more tallies by taking Crowell's measure, while again Hooker had pulled through without being scored upon, which made the scorers' record six to three in favor of the visitors at the beginning of the seventh. Oakdale seemed to have the game bagged.
When the seventh passed with the score unchanged on either side and Hooker apparently "still going strong," it began to look as if Springer would get no chance to do any pitching in that game. But baseball is sometimes most uncertain, which is one reason why the game is so popular in America. In the last of the eighth, with one man gone, the locals finally took Hooker's measure and began batting him to all quarters of the field. Almost before the gasping, excited spectators could realize it, Wyndham had made one run and the bases were all occupied, with one of the strongest hitters of the home team at bat.
Springer had limbered up, with Stone catching him, in the first of the seventh while Oakdale was at bat, and now Eliot stepped upon the plate, giving a signal which meant that Roy was to retire and Phil was to take his place.
Phil was sorry for Hooker, who showed that he was fearfully upset and chagrined, and, as he passed the unlucky pitcher on his way out to the firing line, he said in a low, sympathetic tone:
"Don't you care, old ch-chap. It happens to the best of us; I got mine in that Barville game, you know. Next time you'll make good."
But could he now "make good" himself? That was the question, of a most disturbing sort, which insinuated itself upon Springer as he stepped into position and received the ball from Captain Eliot. The anxious Oakdale crowd gave him a cheer.
"There's Springer!" he heard a voice shout. "He'll stop it. Hold 'em, Phil—hold 'em!"
"I must, and I will," thought Phil.
Eliot smiled on him encouragingly as he adjusted the cage and stepped back into position, crouching to give a signal. The Wyndham coachers began chattering, and the local crowd "rooted" hard. Surely it was a moment to test the nerve of any young pitcher.
Phil caught Roger's signal, nodded, and bent the first ball over. The batter hit it to the left of the pitcher, and Springer, shooting out his gloved hand, simply deflected the ball enough to prevent Nelson, who was almost directly in line, from getting it. The Wyndham crowd yelled madly as another runner scored and the hitter reached first safely.
"This pitcher's the easiest one yet!" shrieked one of the coachers. "Nail the game right here, fellows. It's easy! it's easy!"
Fear sought to fasten its benumbing clutch upon Springer. What if he could not stop Wyndham? Rackliff would hear that he had warned Eliot about the signals, and, seeking retaliation, would betray the fact that he had likewise wagered money that Wyndham would win. To everybody it must seem that Phil had at last shown himself thoroughly despicable and untrustworthy by betraying his own team on the field. This thought actually made him sick and giddy for a moment.
"Never mind, Spring—never mind," Eliot was saying. "That was an accident; it wasn't a hit. Get the next man; get this fellow. You can do it."
"I must, and I will!" thought Phil once more.
He shook off the touch of fear and steadied himself. Again Eliot gave a signal, and again he nodded. Strangely enough, the next batter hit a liner to the left of Springer, almost precisely as the other had done; but this time the pitcher's gloved fingers caught and held the ball, following which he instantly turned and snapped it to first base before the runner, who had started down the line, could get back.
It was a double play, and a mighty shout of joy was flung forth from beneath the fluttering crimson banners of the Oakdale spectators. Again Phil was cheered.
"Well done, Spring," complimented Eliot quietly, as Phil reached the bench.
Then Herbert Rackliff, pale and desperate, rushed forth to the bench, catching Eliot's arm and saying:
"Perhaps you're not aware that Mr. Springer has bet money on this game. He has bet money that Wyndham will win. If you don't believe me, ask him."
Roger turned to Phil. "Is this true?"
"Yes," was the husky answer, "it's true. I gave this sus-sneaking blabber seven dollars to bet on Wyndham, and I'll never gug-get over being ashamed of it as long as I live. He's the creature who gave away our signals to Wyndham. I hope I lose that mum-money, and, if you'll trust me, I'll do my level best to make myself lose it."
The Oakdale captain turned on Rackliff. "Get off the field," he ordered sternly. "Get back where you belong, and be quick about it."
Herbert retired, his last remaining hope being that Phil would go to pieces in the ninth.
But Springer was strengthened and steadied by a great desire, and, although Oakdale's lead was not increased, he pitched so well that the slender margin was sufficient to give the visitors the victory. Not a Wyndhamite reached first, and two of the three who faced Springer were mowed down on strikes.
The overjoyed Oakdale crowd charged onto the diamond and surrounded the winners as they were giving Wyndham a cheer. Springer was swept off his feet and caught up on the shoulders of the crowd, who bellowed his name again and again. Looking downward, he saw that his right leg rested on the shoulder of Rodney Grant, who was cheering madly.
In the dressing room, a little later, Grant came up quietly and put forth his uninjured left hand.
"Put it there, partner," he begged. "You sure turned the trick, and you held them down handsomely. It was a great victory."
Springer seized the proffered hand, laughing to hide the fact that joy threatened to blind his eyes with tears.
"It was a great victory," he agreed, thinking, however, of the victory he had won over himself.
"Sure," beamed the Texan. "And now Oakdale ought to win the championship; she ought to win it with you and me—and Hooker, for pitchers." He said this laughing in a way that robbed his words of any touch of egotism.
Oakdale did win the championship, without the loss of a single game. Grant and Springer did the greater part of the pitching, the work being divided almost equally between them; but Hooker was not wholly forgotten, and he obtained some opportunities, actually pitching one complete game in a most creditable manner.
Herbert Rackliff saw no more baseball after the Wyndham game, for his parents were notified that he had contracted a pronounced case of pulmonary trouble, and, this being confirmed later by the family physician, he was hurriedly shipped to Colorado, in hopes that the dry and bracing atmosphere of that State might restore him to health. Although the boys of Oakdale charitably refrained from making much talk about him, he was little missed by them.