JACK WINTERS' BASEBALL TEAM
The Rivals of the Diamond
Made in U.S.A. M. A. Donohue & Company Chicago—New York
Copyright 1919, by American Authors Publishing Co.
Made in U.S.A.
I. Three Boys of Chester 11 II. A Weak Link in the Chain 19 III. The Last Practice Game 28 IV. When Chester Awakened 37 V. Tied in the Ninth Inning 46 VI. Fred Put to the Test 55 VII. The Game Called by Darkness 64 VIII. The Puzzle Grows 73 IX. A Fairy in the Badger Home 81 X. The Warning 89 XI. Sitting on the Lid 98 XII. One Trouble After Another 107 XIII. When the Cramp Seized Joel 116 XIV. A Night Alarm 124 XV. What Happened at the Fire 133 XVI. A Startling Disclosure 142 XVII. Fred Renews His Pledge 150 XVIII. Hendrix Again in the Box 159 XIX. The Lucky Seventh 168 XX. After the Great Victory—Conclusion 177
JACK WINTERS' BASEBALL TEAM
THREE BOYS OF CHESTER
"No use talking, Toby, there's something on Jack's mind of late, and it's beginning to bother him a lot, I think!"
"Well, Steve, you certainly give me the creeps, that's what you do, with your mysterious hints of all sorts of trouble hanging over our heads, just as they say the famous sword of that old worthy, Damocles, used to hang by a single hair, ready to fall. Look here, do you realize, Steve, what it would mean if Jack went and got himself rattled just now?"
"Huh! guess I do that, Toby, when, for one thing, we're scheduled to go up against that terrible Harmony nine day after tomorrow."
"And if Jack is getting cold feet already, on account of something or other, I can see our finish now, Steve."
"Still, we beat them in that first great game, don't let's forget that, Toby, and take what consolation we can from the fact."
"Oh! rats! we know how that came about. They'd never been beaten the entire season by any team in the county, and had grown a bit careless. Because they had a clean record they believed they could just about wipe up the ground with poor old Chester, a slow town that up to this year had never done anything worth while in connection with boys' outdoor sports."
"That's right, Toby. Never will I forget how humiliated I felt when they struck town on that glorious day. They came in a lot of cars and motor-trucks, with the Harmony Band playing, 'Lo, the Conquering Hero Comes,' and with whoops and toots galore from the crowds of faithful rooters. Why, bless you, they felt so confident of winning that they even left their star battery at home to rest up, and used the second string slab-team. But, oh! my eye! it was a saddened lot of Harmony fellows that wended their way back home, everybody trying to explain what had struck them to the tune of eleven to five. Wow!"
"Great Caesar! Steve, but didn't old Chester go crazy that same night, though, with the bonfires making the sky look red, and the boys yelling through the main streets in a serpentine procession, carrying Jack on their shoulders? The campus in front of the high school was packed solid when Professor Yardley made a speech, and congratulated our gallant team because we had that same day put Chester once for all on the map!"
"But, shucks! Toby, the tables were sure turned on us when we went over to play that second game. Those chaps were on their toes that day, and it was Hendrix and Chase, their star battery, that fed us of their best."
"Yes, we did lose, all right, but don't forget that we fought tooth and nail to the very last."
"Say, that rally in the ninth was a thrilling piece of business, wasn't it, Toby? Why, only for our right fielder, Big Bob Jeffries, hitting that screamer straight into the hands of the man playing deep centre instead of lifting it over his head for a homer, we'd have won out. There were two on bases, you remember, with the score three to four."
"Now we're tied, with one game each to our credit, and Harmony coming over the day after tomorrow to take our measure, they boast. Jack has been so confident ever since he picked up that new pitcher, Donohue, on the sand lots in town, that I'm puzzled a heap to know what ails him latterly."
"One thing sure, Toby, Jack is bound to speak up sooner or later, and let his two chums know what's in the wind. I rather expect he agreed to meet us here today so as to have a heart-to-heart talk; and if so, it's bound to be about the matter that's troubling him."
"I certainly hope so, because when you know the worst you can plan to meet the difficulty. And if only we could win the rubber in this series with Harmony, it'd make little old Chester famous."
The two boys who were holding this animating and interesting conversation stood kicking their heels on a corner where the main street in the town was crossed by another. It was about ten o'clock on a morning in early summer. Chester seemed to be quite a bustling sort of town, located in the East. Considerable business was carried on in the place, for there were several factories running, employing hundreds of workers at good wages.
Certainly no town in the broad land could be more advantageously located than the borough in which Toby Hopkins and Steve Mullane lived. It lay close to the shore of Lake Constance, a beautiful sheet of clear water three miles across at its broadest point, and at least twelve long, with many deep and really mysterious coves, and also bordered by quite a stretch of swampy land toward the south. Far up toward its northern extremity lay the Big Woods, where during winters considerable lumbering was done by a concern that had a camp there.
As if that wonderful sheet of water were not enough to gratify the tastes of all boys who loved to skate and swim and fish and go boating, there was Paradise River emptying into the lake close by, a really picturesque stream with its puzzling bends and constantly novel views that burst upon the sight as one drove a canoe up its lazy current of a sunny summer afternoon.
Toby was a character. He had an enviable disposition in that he seldom if ever showed a temper. His many peculiarities really endeared him to his boy friends. As he was apt to say when introducing himself to some newcomer in town, "My name is Hopkins, 'Hop' for short; and that's why they put me at short on the diamond; because I rather guess I can hop to beat the band, if I can't do much else."
But in Chester, it was well known among the admirers of the new baseball team, that by his "hopping" Toby managed to cover short as few fellows could. Seldom did the most erratic hit get past those nimble hands of his, that could stab a vicious stinging ball coming straight from the bat of a slugger, and apparently tagged for a two-bagger at least.
Steve Mullane was of heavier build, and admirably suited for his position of catcher. He usually proved himself well worthy of the warm regard of Chester's rooting fans, who flocked to the games these days.
And yet, Chester, now baseball mad apparently, had, until this season, seemed to be wrapped in a regular Rip Van Winkle sleep of twenty years, in so far as outdoor sports for boys went. Time and again there had been a sporadic effort made to enthuse the school lads in baseball, football, hockey, and such things, but something seemed lacking in the leadership, and all the new schemes died soon after they came on the carpet.
Then a little event happened that put new life and "ginger" into the whole town, so far as the boys were concerned. A new boy arrived in Chester, and his name it happened was Jack Winters. From the very start it seemed as though Jack must have been meant for a natural-born leader among his fellows. They liked him for his genial ways, and soon began to ask his opinion with regard to almost everything that came along. During the preceding winter, Jack had started several things that turned out to be extremely successful. Rival hockey teams once more contested on the smooth ice of the frozen lake; also one or two iceboats were seen skimming over the great expanse of Constance, something that had not been known in half a generation.
The backward boys of Chester began to talk as though big notions might be gripping them. If other towns no larger than the one in which they lived had gymnasiums, and regularly organized field clubs, with splendid grounds for athletic meets, what was to hinder them from doing the same?
So in due time a new baseball team was organized, consisting not only of those who attended Chester High, but several fellows who worked in the factories, but had Saturday afternoons off. They had practiced strenuously, and under a coach who had been quite a famous player in one of the big leagues, until a broken leg put him out of business; Joe Hooker was now working in one of the factories, though just as keen at sports as ever.
When, earlier in the season, Chester actually walked away with two games in succession from the pretty strong team at Marshall, the good people awakened to the fact that a revolution had indeed taken place in the boys of the town. A new spirit and ambition pervaded every heart. Doing things worth while is the best way to arouse a boy to a consciousness that he has a fighting chance.
From what passed between Toby and Steve as they waited for their chum to join them, it can be seen that great things were hanging in the balance those days. In about forty-eight hours Harmony would be swarming into the town riding in all manner of conveyances, shouting and showing every confidence in the ability of their great team to take that deciding game.
There was good need of anxiety in the Chester camp. Not once had Harmony gone down to defeat all season until that unlucky day when, scorning the humble newly organized Chester nine, they had come over with a patched-up team to "go through the motions," as one of them had sadly confessed while on the way home after losing.
Ten minutes later and Toby gave an exclamation of satisfaction.
"Here comes Jack!" he told his companion, and immediately both glued their eyes on the clean-limbed and bright-faced young fellow who was swinging toward them, waving a hand as he caught their signals.
There was nothing remarkable about Jack Winters, save that he seemed a born athlete, had a cheery, winning way about him, and seemed to have a magnetism such as all born leaders, from Napoleon down, possess, that drew others to him, and made them believe in his power for extracting victory from seeming defeat.
"Sorry to have kept you waiting so long, fellows," Jack remarked, as he joined them, "but a man stopped me on the street, and his business was of such importance that I couldn't break away in a hurry. But let's adjourn to a quieter place; over there in the little park under the trees I can see a bench that's empty. I've got something to tell you that nobody must hear except you two."
"Does it have a bearing on the great game with Harmony, Jack?" begged Toby, who was a bit impatient after his way.
"It may mean everything to us in that battle!" Jack admitted, as he headed for the bench in the small park.
A WEAK LINK IN THE CHAIN
When Jack dropped down on the bench, the others crowded as close up on either side as they could possibly get. No one was near by, save a couple of nursemaids chatting and gossiping while they trundled their baby carriages back and forth; and they were too much engrossed in exchanging views of the gallant policeman on the block to notice three boys with their heads close together, "plotting mischief," as they would doubtless believe.
"Now break loose and give us a hint what it's all about, please, Jack!" urged Toby.
"Because both of us have noticed that something's been bothering you latterly," added Steve; "and as you're not the fellow to borrow trouble it's got us guessing, I tell you. Who's the weak brother on the team you're afraid of, Jack?"
"I see your guessing has been in the right direction, Steve," the other went on to remark, with an affectionate nod; for in the few months he had known them, these new chums had won a warm place in Jack Winters' heart. "Don't be startled now when I tell you it's Fred who's keeping me awake nights."
Both the others uttered low exclamations of surprise.
"What! Fred Badger, our bully reliable third baseman, equal to that crackerjack Harmony boasts about as the best in the State!" gasped Toby. "Why, only yesterday I heard you say our Fred was getting better right along, and that his equal couldn't be easily found. We don't even need to keep a substitute back of Fred, his work is that gilt-edged."
"That's just what's troubling me," admitted Jack, quietly. "If I was able to lay my hand on some one right now who could fill Fred's shoes even fairly well, I wouldn't be so bothered; but there isn't a boy in Chester who can play that difficult position so as not to leave a terrible gap in our stone-wall infield, no one but Fred."
"But what's the matter with Fred?" demanded Steve.
"I saw him not an hour ago," spoke up Toby, "and say, he didn't look so very sick then, let me tell you, Jack. He was swallowing an ice-cream soda in the drug-store, and seemed to be enjoying it immensely, too."
"And yet," added Steve, thoughtfully, "now that you mention it, Jack, seems to me Fred has been acting a little queer lately. There's been a sort of shifting way he avoids looking straight into your eyes when you're talking with him. Why, when I got speaking about our next big game, and hoped he'd play like a regular demon at third sack he grinned sheepishly, and simply said he meant to try and do himself credit, but nobody could ever tell how luck was going to pan out."
Jack shook his head.
"That's just it, fellows," he went on to say, gloomily. "I've heard the same thing from others. In fact, Phil Parker even went on to say it looked like Fred was getting ready to excuse himself in case he did commit some terrible crime in juggling a ball when a vital time in the game came, and a clean throw meant win or lose."
"I'd hate to see that spirit shown under any conditions," said Jack, "because it means lack of confidence, and such a thing has lost no end of games. It's the fellow who says he can and will do things that comes in ahead nearly every time. But listen, boys, that isn't the worst of this thing."
"Gee whiz! what's coming now, Jack?" asked Toby, wriggling uneasily on the bench.
"Of course you know that over in Harmony, which is a larger place than Chester, there is quite a sporting element," Jack continued. "Latterly, we've been told quite an interest has been aroused in the outcome of this deciding game between the two rival clubs; and that some rich sports from the city have even come up to make wagers on the result. I've heard gentlemen here tell this, and deplore the fact that such a thing could invade an innocent sport like baseball. You both know this, don't you, fellows?"
"Yes," said Steve, quickly, "I've heard a lot of talk about it, and how they are determined to arrest anybody making an open bet on the game at the grounds when the crowd is there; but even that isn't going to prevent the laying of wagers in secret."
"I ran across a Harmony fellow yesterday," Toby now remarked, eagerly, "and he said there was a terrible lot of excitement over there about this game. You see, the news about our new pitcher has leaked out, from the Chester boys doing considerable bragging; and they're going to play their very best to win against us. He also admitted that there was open betting going on, with heavy odds on Harmony."
"That all agrees with what came to me in a side way," he explained. "In other words, the way things stand, there will be a big lot of money change hands in case Harmony does win. And those sporting men who came up from the city wouldn't think it out of the way to pay a good fat bribe if they could make sure that some player on the Chester team would throw the game, in case it began to look bad for Harmony!"
Toby almost fell off his seat on hearing Jack say that.
"My stars! and do you suspect Fred of entering into such a base conspiracy as that would be, Jack?" he demanded, hoarsely; while Steve held his very breath as he waited for the other to reply.
"Remember, not one word of this to a living soul," cautioned Jack; "give me your solemn promise, both of you, before I say anything more."
Both boys held up a right hand promptly.
"I never blab anything, even in my sleep, Jack," said Steve; "and until you give permission never a single word will I pass along."
"Same here," chirped Toby; "I'll put a padlock on my lips right away, and wild horses couldn't force me to leak. Now tell us what makes you suspect poor old Fred of such a horrible crime?"
"I've tried to make myself believe it impossible," Jack commenced; "and yet all the while I could see that Fred has changed in the last ten days, changed in lots of ways. There's something been bothering him, that's plain."
"Stop a minute, will you, Jack, and let me say something," interrupted Toby. "I wouldn't mention it even to you fellows only for this thing coming up. I chance to know why Fred has been looking worried of late. Shall I tell you, in hopes that it might ease your mind, Jack?"
"Go on, Toby," urged Steve. "We ought to get at the bottom of this thing before it's too late, and the mischief done. Any player can throw a game, if he's so minded, and the opportunity comes to him, and mebbe not even be suspected; but as a rule, baseball players are far too honorable to attempt such tricks."
"It's a secret over at our house," Toby went on to say. "My mother happens to know that Doctor Cooper told Mrs. Badger she could be a well woman again if only she went to a hospital in the city, and submitted to an operation at the hands of a noted surgeon he recommended. But they are poor, you know, boys, and it's next to impossible for them to ever think of raising the three hundred dollars the operation would cost. She told my mother Fred was making himself fairly sick over his inability to do something to earn that big sum. So you see the poor chap has had plenty of reason for looking glum lately."
"I knew nothing about Fred's mother being sick," Jack admitted; "and I'm sorry to learn it now; but don't you see, your explanation only seems to make matters all the blacker for him, Toby?"
"Why, how can that be, Jack?"
"Only this, that while Fred might never be bribed to listen to any scheme to throw the game in favor of Harmony, on his own account, the tempting bait of three hundred dollars might win him over now, because of his love for his mother."
"But, Jack, however could he explain where he got so much money?" cried Steve. "It would come out, and he'd be called on for an explanation. Even his mother would refuse to touch a cent dishonestly gained, though she died for it. Why, Fred would be crazy to think he could get away with such a game."
"Still, he might be blind to that fact," Jack explained. "The one thing before his eyes would be that he could pick up the money so sorely needed, and for which he might even be tempted to barter his honor. All sorts of explanations could be made up to tell where he got the cash. But there's even something more than that to make matters look bad for Fred."
"As what, Jack?" begged Toby, breathlessly.
"Just day before yesterday," the other continued, "I chanced to pass along over yonder, and glancing across saw Fred sitting on this very bench. He was so busy talking with a man that he never noticed me. That man was a stranger in Chester, at least I had never seen him before. Yes, and somehow it struck me there was a bit of a sporty look about his appearance!"
"Gee whiz! the plot thickens, and that does look black for Fred, I must say," grunted Toby, aghast.
"I was interested to the extent of hanging around to watch them further," Jack went on to say, "and for half an hour they continued to sit here, all the while talking. I thought the sporty stranger glanced around a number of times, as though he didn't want any one to overhear a word of what he was saying. He seemed to have a paper of some sort, too, which I saw Fred signing. I wondered then if he could be such a simpleton as to attach his name to any dishonorable deal; but sometimes even the sharpest fellow shows a weak point. Now I know that Fred must be fairly wild to get hold of a certain sum of money, it makes me more afraid than ever he is pledged to toss away the game, if it looks as though Chester is going to win out on a close margin."
"Then we ought to drop Fred out, and take our medicine with another man on third," proposed Steve, hotly.
"I'd do that in a minute, and take no chances of foul play," said Jack, "if only we knew of anybody capable of filling his shoes. If Harmony knows a weak player covers third bag, they'll make all their plays revolve around him, that's sure. The only thing I can see is to let Fred keep on, and hope the game will not be so close that he could lose it for Chester by a bad break. Besides that I could have a heart-to-heart talk with him, not letting him see that we suspected his loyalty, but impressing it on his mind that every fellow in the team believed in him to the utmost, and that we'd be broken-hearted if anything happened to lose us this game on which the whole future of clean sport in Chester hangs."
"That might do it, Jack!" snapped Toby, eagerly. "You've got a way about you that few fellows can resist. Yes, that's our only plan, it seems; Fred is indispensable on the team at this late stage, when a sub couldn't be broken in, even if we had one handy, which we haven't. Play him at his regular position, and let's hope there'll be no chance for double-dealing on his part."
"But we'll all be mighty anxious as the game goes along, believe me," asserted Steve, as they arose to leave the vicinity of the bench. "I'll be skimpy with my throws to third to catch a runner napping, for fear Fred might make out to fumble and get the ball home just too late to nab the runner. And, Jack, try your level best to convince Fred that the eyes of all Chester will be on him during that game, with his best girl, pretty Molly Skinner, occupying a front seat in the grand stand!"
THE LAST PRACTICE GAME
On the following morning, twice Jack walked around to where the humble cottage of the Badger family stood, on purpose to call on Fred, and have a chat with him; but on each occasion missed seeing the third baseman. His mother Jack had never met before, and he was quite interested in talking with her. Purposely Jack influenced her to speak of Fred, and his ambitions in the world. He could see that, like most mothers, she was very proud of her eldest son, and had an abiding faith in his ability to accomplish great things when later on he took his place in business circles.
She had been a widow for some years. The house was very tidy, and a pretty flower and vegetable garden spoke well for Fred's early rising and assiduous labors as a young provider. When Jack purposely mentioned that he had heard something about her anticipating a visit to the city to spend a little while at a hospital, she shook her head sadly, and a look of pain crossed her careworn face as she said:
"Dr. Cooper wants me to go and see his friend, who is a famous surgeon, but I'm afraid the cost is much more than I can afford at present, unless some miracle comes up before long. But I try to forget my troubles, and feel that I have much to be thankful for in my three children, all so healthy and so clever. Why, there's hardly a thing Fred wouldn't do for me. Ah! if only his father could have lived to see him now, how proud he would be of such a boy!"
When Jack came away after that little interesting talk, he felt very down-hearted. What a shock it would be to his fond mother should she ever be forced to learn that her boy had taken money from those who were betting on the outcome of the great game, in order to betray his comrades who placed the most implicit confidence in his loyalty.
Even though it were done with the best motive in the world, that of trying to make his mother a well woman again, she would bitterly regret his having yielded to such an ignoble temptation and fallen so low as to sell a game.
Then came the last practice that afternoon, to prepare for the morrow, when Harmony's confident hosts would come with brooms waving, to indicate how they meant to sweep up the ground with poor Chester's best offering.
Coach Hooker was on deck, for already the spirit of newly awakened sport had permeated the whole place, so that the boss at his factory gladly released him from duty for that special afternoon, in order that the Chester boys might profit from his sage advice.
Fred did not show up until just before the game with the scrub team was being called, so that of course Jack could not find an opportunity just then to indulge in any side talk with the keeper of the third sack. He determined not to let anything prevent his walking home in company with Fred, however, and trying to see behind the mask which he believed the other was wearing to conceal the real cause of his uneasiness.
The game started and progressed, with every fellow filled with vim and vigor. To those who had come to size up the team before the great battle, it seemed as if every member had made strides forward since the last match, when Harmony won out in that last fierce inning after the rally that almost put Chester on top.
From time to time, each, individual player would seem to rise up and perform the most remarkable stunts. Now it was Joel Jackman, out in center, who made a marvelous running catch, jumping in the air, and pulling down a ball that seemed good for at least a three-bagger, also holding the horse-hide sphere even while he rolled over twice on the ground.
Later on, a great triple play was pulled off, Winters at first to Jones on second, and home to Mullane in time to catch a runner attempting to profit by all this excitement. Such a wonderful handling of the ball in a match game would give the crowd a chance to break loose with mighty cheers, friends and foes joining in to do the clever athletes honor.
Then there was Big Bob Jeffries, a terror at the bat; three times up, and each occasion saw him almost knock the cover off the ball, making two home runs, and a three-bagger in the bargain. Why, if only Big Bob could duplicate that performance on the following day, it was "good-night to Harmony." But then there was a slight difference between the pitcher of the scrub team and the mighty slab artist who officiated for Harmony; and possibly, Bob might only find thin air when he struck savagely at the oncoming ball, dexterously tagged for a drop, or a sweeping curve.
Nevertheless, everybody seemed satisfied that the entire team was "on edge," and in the "pink of condition." If they failed to carry off the honors in that deciding game, there would be no valid excuse to offer, save that Harmony was a shade too much for them. Even though they might be defeated, they meant to fight doggedly to the end of the ninth inning, and feel that they had given the champions of the county a "run for their money."
Win or lose, Chester had awakened to the fact that the local team was well worth patronizing. Another season would see vast improvements, and the time might yet come when Chester would write her name at the top of the county teams. All sorts of other open-air sports were being talked of, and there was a host of eager candidates ready to apply for every sort of position. Jack Winters had managed to awaken the sleepy town, and "start things humming," most fellows admitted, being willing to give him the greater part of the credit.
So when the game was ended, the players gathered around Joe Hooker to listen to his frank criticisms, and pledge themselves anew to do their level best to "take Harmony's scalp" on the morrow.
Jack kept on the watch, and both Toby and Steve saw what he was aiming at when he hurriedly left the group and walked quickly after Fred, who had started toward home.
"Only hope he makes his point," muttered Toby to the other. "Fred certainly played like a fiend today. Nothing got by him, you noticed. He scooped that hummer from Bentley's bat off the ground as neat as wax. No professional could have done better, I heard Joe Hooker say. He thinks Fred is a jim-dandy at third, and that he's a natural ball player, strong at the bat, as well as in the field."
Meanwhile, Jack had overtaken Fred, who, hearing his footsteps, turned his head to see who might be hurrying after him. Jack fancied he looked a trifle confused at seeing the captain of the team trying to come up with him, though that might only be imagination, after all. Still, doubtless Fred's mother must have mentioned the fact that Jack had been at the house twice that morning, as though he had something of importance to communicate.
"I'm going your way, it happens, this afternoon, Fred," Jack remarked as he came up, "as I have an errand over at your neighbor, Mrs. Jennings, a commission for my mother; so I'll step alongside, and we can chat a bit as we walk along."
"Glad to have your company, Jack," said Fred; but all the same he did not seem so very enthusiastic over it. "The boys all worked like a well-oiled machine today, I noticed, and if only we can do as well in the big game, we ought to have a look in, I should think."
"We've just got to make up our minds we mean to win that game tomorrow, no matter how Hendrix pitches gilt-edged ball," Jack told him. "Every fellow must tell himself in the start that he will let nothing whatever interfere with his giving Chester of his very best. I don't care what it may be that stands in the way, we must brush it aside, and fight together to carry the day. Why, Chester will just go crazy if only we can down the boasting team that has never tasted defeat this season up to that fluke game, when they underestimated the fighting qualities of the rejuvenated Chester nine. And we can do it, Fred, we surely can, if only we pull together in team work, and every fellow stands on his honor to do his level best. You believe that, don't you, Fred?"
The other looked at Jack, and a slight gleam, as of uncertainty, began to show itself in his eyes. Then he shut his jaws together, and hurriedly replied:
"Of course I do, Jack. I'm not the one to show the white feather at such an early stage of the game. They've never accused me of having cold feet, no matter how bad things seemed to be breaking for my side. In fact, I've been a little proud of the reputation I have of being able to keep everlastingly at it. Stubbornness is my best hold, I've sometimes thought."
"Glad to know it, Fred, because that's a quality badly needed in baseball players. There's always hope up to the time the last man is down. Joe Hooker tells lots of wonderful stories of games he's seen won with two out in the ninth frame, and the other side half a dozen runs to the good. You are never beaten until the third man is out in the last inning. I'm glad to hear you say you mean to fight as never before in your life to get that game for the home club. Fact is, Fred, old fellow, I've been a little anxious about you latterly, because I thought you seemed upset over something or other, and I was afraid it might interfere with your play."
Fred started plainly, and shot Jack a quick look out of the corner of his eye, just as though he might be asking himself how much the other knew, or suspected.
"Well, the fact of the matter is, Jack, I have been feeling down-spirited over something. It's a family matter, and I hope you'll excuse me for not going into particulars just now. Day and night I seem to be wrestling with a problem that's mighty hard to solve; but there's a little ray of sunlight beginning to crop up, I don't mind telling you, and perhaps I'll find a way yet to weather the storm. I'm trying to feel cheerful about it; and you can depend on me taking care of third sack tomorrow the best I know how."
"That's all I can ask of any man, Fred; do yourself credit. Thousands of eyes will watch every move that is made, and among them those we care for most of every one in the whole world. I heard Molly Skinner saying this afternoon that she wouldn't miss that game for all the candy in the world. She also said she had a favorite seat over near third, and would go early so as to secure it. A brilliant play over your way would please Molly a heap, I reckon, Fred."
The other turned very red in the face, and then, tried to laugh it off as he hastened to say in a voice that trembled a little, despite his effort to control it:
"Yes, she told me the same thing, Jack, and it was nice of Molly to say it, for you know she's the prettiest girl in Chester, and a dozen boys are always hanging around her. Yes, I'd be a fool not to do myself proud tomorrow, with so many of my friends looking on; though of course any fellow might run into a bit of bad judgment and make a foozle, when he'd give five years of his life to work like a machine. I'm hoping, and praying, too, Jack, that such a streak of bad luck won't come my way, that's all I can say. Here's where I leave you, if you're bound for Jennings' place. If it's my promise to do my level best tomorrow you want, Jack, you've got it!"
So they parted. Still, Jack was not altogether easy in his mind. He went over every little incident of their recent intercourse as they trudged along side by side; and wondered whether Fred, who was not very well known to him, could be deceiving him. He cudgeled his brain to understand what those strange actions of the third baseman could mean, and who that sporty looking individual, whom he had with his own eyes seen talking so mysteriously to Fred might be.
WHEN CHESTER AWAKENED
"Did you ever see such an enormous crowd?"
"Beats everything that ever happened around Chester all hollow!"
"Talk to me about excitement, the old town has gone stark, staring crazy over baseball; and it's all owing to Jack Winters coming to Chester, and shaking the dry bones of what used to be a Sleepy Hollow place."
"Right you are, Pete, and this is only a beginning of the glorious things scheduled to happen within the next six months or so. Already there's great talk about a football eleven that will clean up things in this neighborhood. We've got the right sort of stuff to make up a strong team, too, remember."
"And, Oliver, when I hear them speak of ice hockey, and skating for prizes, it gives me a heap of satisfaction, for you know I'm a crank on winter sports. Because the boys of Chester didn't seem to enthuse over such things has been the grief of my heart. But this day was certainly made for a thrilling baseball game."
"Oh! the sky looks blue enough, and that sun is some hot, I admit, but somehow I don't exactly like the looks of yonder bank of clouds that keeps hanging low-down close to the horizon in the southwest. We get most of our big storms from that quarter, don't forget."
A burst of derisive boyish laughter greeted this remark from the fellow named Oliver, who apparently was a bit of a pessimist, one of those who, while admitting that a day might be nearly perfect, chose to remember it was apt to be a weather-breeder, and bound to be followed by stormy times.
"Listen to the old croaker, will you?" one Chester rooter called out. "How anybody could pick a flaw with this splendid day beats me all hollow. Why, it was made on purpose for Chester to lick that boasting Harmony team, and send them back home like dogs, with their tails between their legs. Hurrah for Chester! Give the boys a cheer, fellows, because there they come on the field."
There was a wild burst of shouts from a myriad of boyish throats, and school flags, as well as other kinds, were waved from the grand-stand where most of the town girls sat, until the whole wooden affair seemed a riot of color in motion.
The boys set to work passing the ball, and calling to one another as though they were full of business and confidence. Those in the audience who knew considerable about games felt that at least none of the home team suffered from stage fright. It looked promising. Evidently Jack Winters had managed to instill his nine with a fair degree of his own bubbling animation. They certainly looked fit to do their best in honor of their native town.
There were hosts of the Harmony folks over. They had come, and still arrived, in all sorts of conveyances, from private cars to stages and carryalls; and from the great row they kicked up with their calls and school cries, one might think it was an open-and-shut thing Chester was fated to get a terrible drubbing on that decisive day.
There were thousands on the field. Every seat in the grand-stand, as well as the commodious bleachers, was occupied, and countless numbers who would have willingly paid for a chance to take things comfortable, found it necessary to stand.
Chester had reason to feel proud of her awakening; and since it seemed an assured fact that her boys could do things worth while, there was reason to hope the town on Lake Constance would never again allow herself to sink back into her former condition of somnolence. So long as Jack Winters lived there, it might be understood first and last that such a catastrophe would never happen.
All eyes were upon the new pitcher who was yet to prove his worth. Most of those gathered to see the game only knew of Alec Donohue as a youngster who had been playing on the sand-lots, as that section near the factories was usually called, for there the toilers in the iron foundry and the mills were in the habit of playing scrub games.
Jack had come across Donohue by accident, and apparently must have been struck with the amazing speed and control that the boy showed in his delivery. He had taken Alec under his wing from that day on, and coached him, with the assistance of old Joe Hooker, until he felt confident he had picked up a real wonder.
Various comments were flying around, most of them connected with the newest member of the Chester team.
"One thing I like about that Donohue," a rangy scout of the high school was saying to a companion wearing glasses, and looking a bit effeminate, though evidently quite fond of sport; "he acts as though he might be as cool as a cucumber. Those Harmony fellows in the crowd will do their level best to faze him, if ever he gets in a tight corner, and lots of things are liable to happen through a hard-fought game."
"Oh! I asked Jack about that," observed the one with spectacles, "and he assured me the fellow seemed absolutely devoid of nerves. Nothing under the sun can bother him. He banks on Jack, and knows the captain has confidence in his work; so you'll see how all the jeering and whooping and stamping on the boards of the grand-stand will fail to upset him. Jack says he's an iceberg."
"Glad to hear it, Specs. That kind of pitcher always has a big lead over the fellow who gets excited as soon as the enemy begins to lambast his favorite curves. The cool sort just changes his gait, and lobs them over between, so that he has the hard batters wasting their energy on the air long before the ball gets across the rubber."
"Listen to all that whooping, Ernest; what's happening, do you think?"
"Well, by the way they're standing up on the seats, and waving hats and handkerchiefs, I rather guess the Harmony players are coming along."
His guess proved to be a true one, for a minute afterwards a big motor-stage entered the enclosure, and from it jumped a dozen or more athletic chaps clad in the spic-and-span white suits with blue stockings that distinguished the Harmony baseball team.
Paying little or no attention to all the wild clamor, they ran out on the near field and commenced flinging several balls back and forth with astonishing vigor. From time to time the boys from the rival town would wave a hand at some enthusiastic friend who was trying to catch their eye from his position in the stand, or on the bleachers.
The band had accompanied them aboard another vehicle. It now burst out with that same encouraging tune "Lo! the Conquering Hero Comes!" though the strains could hardly be heard above the roar of many lusty voices trying to drown each other out.
Of a truth, Chester had never seen such a wonderful day. It seemed as though the wand of a magician must have been manipulated to awaken the hitherto sleepy town to such real, throbbing life. And every boy in the place, yes, and girl also, not to mention hundreds of grown-ups who were thrilled with such a magnificent spectacle, had determined that this would only be a beginning; and that Chester must, under no conditions, be allowed to fall back into that old dead rut. Why, they had just begun to discover what living meant, and learn what the right sort of a spirit of sport will bring to a town.
It was now three, and after. The immense crowd began to grow impatient. Both teams had occupied the diamond in practice for fifteen minutes each, and many clever stunts were pulled off in clean pick-ups, and wonderful throws, which called forth bravos from the admiring spectators.
Several pitchers on either side had also warmed up, and naturally the new recruit, Donohue, was watched much more closely than those whose offerings had been seen on previous occasions.
He made no effort to disclose what he had in the way of various balls, his sole object, apparently, being to get his arm limbered up and in condition. Still, occasionally, he would send one in that caused a gasp to arise.
"Did you see that speed ball zip through the air, Specs?" demanded the fellow who had been called Ernest by the one wearing glasses.
"I tried to follow it, but lost out," admitted the other, frankly. "It's true, then, this Donohue must have a swift delivery, for I could always follow the ball when McGuffey hurled his best; and seldom lost one that speed-king Hendrix sent along. See how most of those Harmony chaps are looking out of the tail of their eyes at our man."
"They're trying to size Donohue up, that's all," said the knowing Ernest. "I've heard it said, though not able to vouch, for the truth of the rumor, that they've had a scout over in Chester every day for a week past."
"What for?" asked Specs.
"Trying to get a line on Donohue's delivery so as to report whether he's the wonder they've been told. But Jack was too clever for them, I guess. They say he had his battery off practicing in secret most of the while; and whenever Donohue did pitch for the local games he was held back. That's why some people said they believed he must be over-rated, and might prove a disappointment. But Jack only gave them the merry ha! ha! and told them to wait and see."
"But it's long after three right now, and still no sign of the game starting," continued Specs, a little anxiously.
"Yes," spoke up Oliver from his seat near by, "and, believe me, that bank of clouds looks a mite higher than it did when the Harmony fellows arrived. Unless they jig up right smart now, we'll get our jackets wet, you mark my words."
The others scoffed at his dismal prediction. With that bright sun shining up in the heavens, it did not seem possible that any such radical change in the weather could take place within a couple of hours.
"Hey! Big Bob, what's the matter with starting this game right away?" called Ernest, as the stalwart right-fielder of the local team chanced to be passing in the direction of the players' bench after chatting with friends.
"Umpire hasn't shown up yet!" called the accommodating Bob, raising his voice, as he knew hundreds were just as curious as Ernest concerning the mysterious reason for play not having commenced. "He had a break-down with his car on the way. Telephoned in that he would be half an hour late, and for them to get another umpire if they couldn't wait that long."
"Well, apparently, they've decided to wait," said Specs, resignedly, settling back in his seat for another fifteen minutes of listening to the chatter of a Babel of tongues and merry laughter. "Good umpires are almost as scarce as hens' teeth; and that Mr. Merrywether is reckoned as fair and impartial as they make them. So the game will start half an hour late after all!"
"Too bad!" Oliver was heard to say, with another apprehensive look in the direction of the southwest, as though to measure the location of that cloud bank with his weather-wise eye, and decide whether it gave promise of stopping play, perhaps at a most interesting stage of the game.
Most of those present did not begrudge the half hour thus spent. Just then none of them could even suspect how great an influence the lost time might have in respect to the eventual close of a fiercely contested game. But, as we shall see later on, it was fated that the dismal prophecies of Oliver were to have some foundation; and time cut a figure in the eventual outcome of that great day's rivalry on the diamond.
TIED IN THE NINTH INNING
The crowd stood up again, and there arose a jargon of cries followed by the appearance of a small wiry man dressed in blue, and wearing a cap after the usual type umpires prefer, so it seemed as though the delayed game would be quickly started.
When Hendrix, the expert hurler from Harmony, mowed down the first three men who faced him, two by way of vain strikes at his deceptive curves, and the other through a high foul, the shouts of the visitors told what an immense number of Harmony people had come across to see their favorites effectually stifle the rising ambition of Chester's athletes on the diamond.
Then came the turn of the locals in the field. Everything depended now on what Jack's new find could show in the way of pitching. Not an eye in that vast throng but was leveled at the youngster. It was certainly enough to try the nerve of any veteran, let alone a newcomer in the arena.
When his first ball sped across with a speed that made it fairly sizzle, many of the Chester rooters gave a shout of approval. Hutchings, the reliable first baseman of the visitors, had struck vainly at the ball. It was doubtful whether he had really seen it flash past, though it landed with a thud in Mullane's big mitt.
But the knowing ones from afar only laughed, and nodded their wise heads. They had seen speed before, and knew how often a pitcher "worked his arm off" in the start of a game, to fall a victim to their heavy batters later on. Unless this wonder of a youngster could stay with Hendrix through inning after inning, why, his finish could be seen. So they settled back in their seats with sighs of contentment, under the conviction that they might see a good game after all.
"Hendrix needs something to make him pitch his head off," remarked one of the visiting fans, in the hearing of Specs and Ernest. "He's taken things too easy most of the time. Why, not once this season so far has he been touched for as many hits as Chester got in the last game. It made the big fellow wake up, and we hear he's been doing a lot of practice lately. Today he ought to shine at his best."
"We all hope so, Mister," said Ernest, boldly, "because, unless the signs fail, he's going to need all his cunning this same day. That lad has the measure of your hard hitters already taken. Did you see him mow down Clifford then like a weed? Why, he'll have the best of them eating out of his hand before the day is done, believe me."
The gentleman only laughed. He could make allowances for a boy's natural enthusiasm. They did not know Hendrix at his best, as the Harmony folks did. He needed a little scare to force him to exert himself to the utmost. Yes, it really promised to be something of a game, if only the youngster kept going for half a dozen innings before he went to pieces, and the ball commenced to fly to every far corner of the field.
When the play was called the two nines on the diamond were lined up as follows:
Chester Harmony ——————— —————- ——————— Jack Winters First Base Hatchings Phil Parker Left Field Clifford Herbert Jones Second Base Martin Joel Jackman Centre Field Oldsmith Toby Hopkins Shortstop Bailey Big Bob Jeffries Right Field O'Leary Fred Badger Third Base Young Steve Mullane Catcher Chase Alec Donohue Pitcher Hendrix
The first inning ended in no hits on either side. It looked very much as though the game might turn out to be a pitchers' duel. Some people like that sort of battle royal, but in the main the spectators would much rather see a regular old-fashioned batting fest, especially if it is their side that is doing most of the hitting.
Again did Hendrix start in to dazzle the locals with an exhibition of his wonderfully puzzling curves and drops. He certainly had them guessing, and in vain did they try to get the ball out of the diamond. Joel Jackman, the first man up, did manage to connect with the ball, perhaps by sheer accident. At the crack everybody held his or her breath and waited, for Joel was long-legged and a noted sprinter, so if only he got on first there might be some hope of succeeding batters working him around the circuit.
But Martin out near second made a leap, and snatched the ball off the ground as easily as though it were a habit of his to get anything that came within reach. He took his time to recover, and then sent the sphere to first as accurately as a bullet fired from a rifle.
Toby fouled three times, and then whiffed; while the swatter of the team, Big Bob, let a good one go by, and then vainly smote the air twice, for his judgment was certainly at fault, and the ball not where he thought it was.
Once again did Donohue step into the box, and after a few balls to Mullane, the first batter, Oldsmith, strode forward swinging his club, and looking especially dangerous. But when he only swung at the air, and backed away from the plate, shaking his head as though puzzled to know what it all meant, long and lusty yells broke out from the loyal Chester rooters.
Bailey, the alert little shortstop, managed to touch a whizzing ball, and send up a skyrocketing foul which Mullane amidst great excitement managed to get under, and smother in that big mitt of his.
Next in line came the terrible O'Leary. He was a swatter from away back, and all sorts of stories were circulated as to the number of home runs he had to his credit up to date.
Donohue looked perfectly cool and confident. He continued to send them in with a dazzling delivery. O'Leary allowed two to pass by, one strike being called on him by the alert umpire. Then he picked out a nice one, and there was an awful sound as he smote it with all his might and main.
Every one jumped up, and necks were stretched in the endeavor to follow the course of that wildly soaring ball, looking like a dot against the low sky-line.
"A homer!" shrieked scores of delighted Harmony fans.
"Watch Joel! He's after it!" shouted the local rooters, also thrilled by the spectacle of the long-legged centre fielder bounding over the ground like a "scared rabbit," as some of them said to themselves.
They saw Joel jump into the air and make a motion with his hand. Then he rolled over with a mighty lunge, but scrambled to his feet holding his hand aloft, to almost immediately hurl the ball in to Jones on second.
It had been a terrific swat, likewise a most amazing catch; and all of the yelling that burst forth was for Joel, who came trotting in, grinning happily, as though he rather liked that sort of thing.
And so the great game went on, inning after inning, amidst excitement that gripped every one present like a vise. When in the sixth Harmony managed to get a man on first through a fluke Texas leaguer, and began to work him along by bunt hitting, it looked dangerous for the locals. In the end, the visitors scored through a slip on the part of Herb Jones on second, who allowed the ball to get away from him because of his nervousness. The run was not earned, but it might decide the game, many people believed.
Jack put more ginger into his crowd when they went to bat in turn. The result of it was he himself made a neat single, and the crowd woke up to the fact that possibly Hendrix might not be so invincible as he was rated.
Up stepped Phil Parker with a grin, and pasted the sphere out in short left, advancing the runner a base with himself safely anchored on first. Jones did his duty and bunted, so that while he went out the runners were now on second and third with only one down.
It was amusing to see how the staid elderly men of Chester became excited at this critical juncture of the game. They could hardly keep their seats, and were watching the movements of those occupying the diamond as though the fate of nations depended on the outcome of this bitter rivalry in sport.
Joel Jackman was next. He, too, connected with the ball, but, alas, only to send up a tremendous foul that was promptly caught, after a smart run, by Clifford in short left field.
Everything depended on Toby Hopkins now. Toby was not known as a heavy hitter, but managed to connect frequently. He was due for a hit, the crowd yelled at him; whereupon the obliging Toby shot a swift one straight at Young on third. It was a hard ball to trap, and Young juggled it. Jack started like a blue streak for home as soon as he saw Toby had connected. He made a slide that carried him over the rubber just before Chase had the ball. It meant that the score was tied, with men on first and third, and two out.
Such shouts as broke forth, the very air seemed to quiver. Hope ran high as Bob Jeffries stepped up, swinging his bat. Alas! he failed miserably to connect with those puzzling curves of Hendrix, and after two vain strikes popped up a little infield fly to the pitcher that, of course, finished the exciting inning.
The game went on, without any more scoring until finally the ninth inning came. Both pitchers were doing as well or better than in the start, and it looked as though extra innings would be the rule. Such an outcome to a game always arouses great enthusiasm among the spectators. A few began to notice the fact that the sun was long since hidden by the rising clouds, and that overhead the blue had given place to a gray that looked suggestive of trouble.
Oliver in particular called attention to the fact that no matter how the other fellows had made fun of his prediction about the weather, it was likely to come true after all. If the game went into extra innings some of that mighty host of spectators might get soaking wet before they could find shelter.
Harmony was out to win the game in this inning. They had managed to get a line on Donohue's speed ball, or else guessed when it was coming over, for the first man up, Clifford, got a safety past short that Toby only stopped by such an effort that he rolled over, and by the time he could deliver the ball to Jack the runner had gone leaping past the bag and was safe.
Pandemonium broke loose just then. The Harmony crowd yelled and whooped and carried on as though a legion of real lunatics had broken out of an asylum near by.
"Here's where we clinch the game, Chester!"
"It's all over!"
"Martin, your turn to swat the bean!"
"Get Donohue going at last. The best pitcher may go to the wall once too often, especially the Harmony well!"
"Now make it three this inning, boys, and we'll forgive you for holding back all this time!"
These and dozens of other cries could be heard. They were partly intended to flustrate the Chester slab-artist, and make him send in the ball wildly, so that the next man might be given his base, something that had only occurred once thus far with Donohue. But Jack sent him a cheering word, and Donohue seemed as cool as ice as he proceeded to serve Captain Martin with his choice swift ones.
FRED PUT TO THE TEST
Through the game, Jack had been observing just how Fred Badger carried himself. Since hits were so few and far between thus far, he had not had a great deal to do in the field. Once he ran in on a bunt, and got it to first in time to cut off the runner. No one could have carried out the play in better shape. Another time he took a hot liner straight off the bat, and received a salvo of cheers from the crowd, always pleased to see such clever play, no matter on which side it occurs.
At bat Fred had not succeeded in shining brilliantly. Hendrix was apparently a puzzle to him, as to many another player. He struck out twice, and perished on a foul another time; but there could be no doubt Fred was trying his best to get in a drive that might be effectual.
Jack noticed that he often cast glances in the direction of the grand-stand where a number of enthusiastic Chester girls sat, and waved their flags or handkerchiefs whenever anything occurred that aroused their admiration. He remembered that pretty Molly Skinner was seated there. Fred evidently had not forgotten that fact either, and Jack found himself hoping it might have considerable influence with the sorely tempted third baseman, in case he were finally put to the test.
Martin was apparently out for a hit, if one could judge from his determined attitude as he stood there at the plate, and swung his bat back and forth in his own peculiar fashion, meanwhile watching the pitcher like a hawk.
The coaching had become vehement, Harmony players seeking to unnerve Donohue by running back and forth around first, until the umpire called a halt on this proceeding, after Jack had drawn his attention to the infringement of the rules.
Then Martin swung. He missed connection, and a groan arose from his crowd, while the Chester contingent cheered Donohue lustily. But Martin only smiled. Such a little thing as that was not going to faze him. He had still two more chances, and the next time he would make more certain.
A deathly silence fell upon the crowd, waiting to see whether Harmony could pull the game out of the fire in the ninth, as had happened several times that same season, for they were famous on account of their rallies.
Martin had a second strike called on him, though he made no effort to go after the ball. In fact, it must have passed him so speedily that he could not properly gauge whether it would be a strike or a ball.
Then suddenly Donohue, taking his cue from a motion Jack made, changed his pace. Although he went through exactly the same gyrations as though about to send up another swift one, the ball came lazily floating through the air, and Martin was seen to viciously stab with his bat long before there was any chance to make connections.
Bedlam broke loose again at that. Auto horns and sirens tooted strenuously, boys shrieked through megaphones, girls waved their flags furiously, and Donohue was greeted with encouraging shouts from every side. Really, he was working wonderfully well considering that he could be called a newcomer to the diamond. In time he was certain to make a name for himself among the big clubs, if some wandering scout ever heard of him, and visited Chester to size his work up.
But here came Oldsmith, and there was that about his manner to proclaim how his whole heart was bent on making at least a single, if not better, so that Harmony might break the tie, and get the home team on the run.
"Take him into camp, Alec!"
"You've got his measure all right, old scout! Twice before he whiffed, and he's in line to make it three times!"
"Feed him your best sizzlers, Donohue!"
"Oldsmith, you're a back number today, don't you know?"
Then they heard the bat connect with the ball. Clifford was off toward second in great style. Toby Hopkins threw himself and managed to stop the shoot that was headed for centre, but he could not get to Jones on second in time to nail the runner, for the umpire held up his hand, and that meant Clifford was safe.
Again things began to look dark for Chester. Harmony had "found" Donohue at last, it seemed, and there could be no telling when the salvo of hits could stop. Perhaps the game would be "sewed up" right there, in case Harmony scored, and Hendrix shut his opponents out when their turn at bat came.
Now it was Bailey up.
The little shortstop was primed for anything. He struck at the first ball, and knocked a foul which dropped safe. Then he missed the next ball so that he was "two in the hole." Of course it was expected that Donohue would now try to deceive him by tempting him with a curve that would be wide of the plate; but Jack had signaled for a third one straight, and it came with swiftness.
Bailey was ready, however, and knew he had to strike, for it would count against him at any rate. He got a fluke hit that started toward first. By jumping in Jack managed to pick up the ball, and then having touched the bag, he hurled it toward second in hopes of making a double play.
Oldsmith, however, had made a fine slide, and was clutching the corner of the second sack when Jones took the ball; while Clifford had won third.
There were now two down, with men on second and third.
Everything depended on the next batter, and when it was seen to be that formidable slugger O'Leary, the home-run maker, how those Harmony rooters did scream. Some of the more irresponsible took to dancing like idiots, clasped in each other's arms. In fact, every known device for "rattling" a pitcher was resorted to, of course legitimately, in order to further their waning cause.
Eagerly did many of the local fans watch to see whether Donohue gave any evidence of going to pieces. He seemed as cool as ever, and smiled as he handled the ball; while O'Leary was knocking his big bat on the ground to test its reliability, as though he meant to put it to some good service then and there. He was seen to turn his head and grin toward some of his ardent admirers in the bleachers back of him. By this means he doubtless informed them that he had been only playing with the tenderfoot pitcher hitherto, and would now proceed to show what strength lay in those muscular arms of his.
Jack waved the fielders back. He anticipated that O'Leary was due for one of his famous lengthy drives, and it was necessary that those guarding the outer gardens should be in position to make a great run, once the ball left the bat. Still, he continued to feel fairly confident that Donohue would recover from his temporary set-back, and possibly deceive O'Leary, as he had done twice before.
He realized that the crisis he had feared was now upon them. If O'Leary sent a scorcher toward Fred, how would the third baseman handle it? Clifford knew what was expected of him, and already part way home on the movement of the pitcher winding up to throw, he would shoot along at the crack of the bat, taking his chances, since there were already two down.
He saw O'Leary actually turn his head slightly and take a quick look toward third as though making up his mind just where he wanted to send the ball, should he be able to connect with the horse-hide sphere. Jack felt a cold chill pass over him. Could it be possible that O'Leary actually knew there was a weak link in the chain made by the infield, and figured on taking advantage of Fred's intended treachery?
At that moment it seemed as though Jack lived years, so many things flashed into his mind. He even remembered how earlier in the game two men, strangers in town, had made themselves obnoxious by standing up in the bleacher seats and shaking handfuls of greenbacks, daring Chester people to back their favorites at odds of three to four. They had been spotted almost immediately, and the mayor of Chester ordered them to desist under penalty of being arrested, since it was against the law of the town for any sort of wagering to be indulged in.
The presence of the local police, and their movement toward the spot had resulted in the two sporty looking strangers subsiding. Some of the Harmony boys, however, scoffed at such Puritanical methods of procedure, since over at their town things were allowed to run wide open; or at least winked at by the authorities.
Jack had been too far away to make sure, but he had a suspicion that one of the pair of betting men looked very much like the party with whom he had seen Fred Badger in close conversation, and who had offered him a paper to sign, after which something passed between them that might have been money, though Jack had not been absolutely certain about that part of it.
Deep down in his heart, Jack hoped most earnestly that the chance for Fred to soil his hands with any crooked work might not arise. It would be all right, for instance, if only Donohue could strike the great O'Leary out for the third time. Then again perhaps even though the batter managed to connect with the ball, he might be unable to send it straight toward Fred. It was liable to go in any other direction, and if a tally should result from the blow, at least it could not be placed to a supposed error on the part of Badger.
Donohue delivered his first one wide of the plate. O'Leary laughed, and nodded his head, as though to tell the pitcher he was too old a bird to be caught with such chaff.
"Make him put it over, Dan!"
"Knock the stuffing out of the ball, O'Leary!"
"One of your old-time homers is what we need, remember!"
"You've got his number, Dan; don't bite at a wide one!"
"You'll walk, all right; he's afraid of you, old scout!"
All these and many other cries could be heard, but the players were paying no attention to the crowd now. Every fielder was "on his toes," so to speak, anticipating that it might be up to him to save the day. In the main, the crowd was so anxious over the outcome of the next ball from the pitcher that they almost forgot to breathe, only watching the pitcher wind up preparatory to making his throw.
Jack saw Fred give one of his quick looks toward the spot where pretty Molly Skinner sat. He hoped it meant that he had resolved to be staunch and true to his team-mates, and loyal to his native town, despite any terrible temptation that may have come to him in the shape of a big bribe.
O'Leary had a peculiar crouch at the plate. His odd attitude made Jack think of a squatty spider about to launch itself at a blue-bottled fly that had ventured too near his corner. No doubt it accounted in some measure for his swatting ability, as he would necessarily put the whole force of his body in his blow. Often when he missed connections he would whirl all the way around; and then recovering make a humorous gesture toward his admirers in the crowd, for O'Leary, being Irish, was almost always in good humor, no matter what happened.
He let the first ball speed past for a strike, and higher rose the excitement. The umpire called the second one a ball, which evened matters a little. Next came "strike two," and yet the great O'Leary waited, while his admirers began to feel fainthearted, fearing that he would stand there and be counted down when everything depended on his making a hit.
Then there came an awful crack! O'Leary had picked out just the kind of a ball he wanted. It must have left his bat like a bullet, and Jack felt himself turn cold when he realized that the ball was headed straight as a die for Fred Badger!
THE GAME CALLED BY DARKNESS
A terrible roar broke forth from thousands of throats. Jack had actually closed his eyes for just a second, unable to witness what might be a plain palpable muff on the part of the tempted Fred. As he opened them again, unmindful of the fact that the batter was rushing toward him with all possible speed, he saw that while Fred had knocked the ball down he had also made a quick recovery.
Just then, he was in the act of hurling it toward home, where Mullane had braced himself to receive the throw, and tag the oncoming runner out. Should Fred veer ever so little from a direct line throw he would pull the catcher aside, and thus give Clifford the opportunity he wanted to slide home.
Away went the ball. Jack held his breath. He saw Mullane, reliable old Mullane, make a quick movement with his hands, and then throwing himself forward, actually fall upon the prostrate and sliding form of the Harmony lad.
That was the umpire making his decision. Not one of the Harmony fellows as much as lifted a voice to dispute the verdict; in the first place, they knew Mr. Merrywether too well to attempt browbeating him at the risk of being taken out of the game; then again every one with eyes could see that Clifford had been three feet away from the plate when Mullane tagged him with the ball.
How the crowd did carry on. A stranger chancing on the spot might have thought Pershing's gallant little army had managed to capture the Kaiser, or crossed the Rhine on its way to Berlin. Indeed, those "whoopers" could not have made more noise to the square inch under any conditions.
And Jack's one thought was gratitude that after all Fred had been able to come through the great test with his honor unsullied. He had shot the ball as straight as a die at Mullane; and the game was still anybody's so far as victory was concerned.
They played a tenth inning, and still not a runner so much as reached second. Really both pitchers seemed to be getting constantly better, strange to say, for they mowed the batters down in succession, or else caused them to pop up fouls that were readily captured by the first or third basemen, or the man behind the bat.
This was not so wonderful on the part of the veteran Hendrix, for he was well seasoned in the game, and had been known to figure in a thirteen-inning deal, coming out ahead in the end when his opponent weakened. Everybody, however, declared it to be simply marvelous that a greenhorn slab-artist like young Donohue should prove to be the possessor of so much stamina.
The eleventh inning went through in quick order. Still the tie remained unbroken, though Jack managed to get a single in his turn at bat. Phil Parker also rapped a ferocious screamer across the infield, but hit into a double that ended the hopeful rally at bat.
When the twelfth opened up, a number of people were seen to start away. They may have been enthusiastic fans enough, but the day was waning, home might be far distant, and they did not like the way those clouds had rolled up, promising a storm sooner or later.
The sun was out of sight long since, and objects could not be determined as easily as when the game began. Every little while that weather-sharp, Oliver, would take a sailor-like squint aloft, and chuckle to himself. Indeed, Specs, his companion, was of the opinion that Oliver would be willing to cheerfully take a good ducking if he could only have his scorned prediction prove a true shot.
There were those present so intent on the game that they paid no attention to the gathering clouds, and the fact that it was getting difficult to see the ball. This latter fact was depended on to help bring matters to a focus, because errors were more likely to occur, any one of which might prove sufficient to let in the winning run.
But if the fielders were thus handicapped, the batters had their own troubles. They could not distinguish the fast-speeding ball as it shot by, and consequently were apt to whack away at anything, so strike-outs must become the order of the day.
The twelfth ended with nothing doing on either side. By now some of the boys were beginning to tire out, for the long strain was telling on them. These fellows of weak hearts were willing to have the game called a draw, which must be played over again at Harmony on the succeeding Saturday. As playing on the home ground is usually considered a great advantage, because the players are accustomed to every peculiarity of the field, Harmony would reap more or less profit from having the postponed game on their diamond. And consequently, when they trooped out for the finish of the thirteenth inning, several of them seemed to have conspired to delay play as much as possible.
This they did in various ways. One fellow made out to have received a slight injury, and the umpire called time until a companion could wrap a rag around the scratched finger. Doubtless he would hardly like to show the extent of his hurt, but the wide grin on his face after the tedious operation had been concluded, told the truth; indeed, most of those present were able to guess his object.
Then just as they settled down to play, another fielder called for time while he knelt down to fasten his shoe-lace which seemed to have come undone, and might trip him at a critical time when he was racing for a fly.
The crowd yelled and jeered, but in spite of all, Clifford took a full minute and more to effect his purpose. Finally, rising, he waved his hand to the umpire to let him know the game could now proceed.
The crowd knew that Harmony was fighting for time, anxious now to have the game called a draw, so that they might have another chance on their home grounds. Such yelling as took place. Harmony was loudly accused of weakening, and trying to crawl out of a tight hole. Loud calls were made for Big Bob at bat to knock one over the fence and lose the ball for keeps.
He did his best, and every one leaped up when the sound of his bat striking the pellet sounded above all other noises. The ball went screeching over second, and apparently was tagged for a three-bagger at least; but Oldsmith had been playing deep when he saw who was up, and by making a most desperate effort he managed to clutch the ball just in time.
That was the expiring effort on the part of Chester. The other two batters went out in quick order just as the first few drops of rain started to fall.
It was now getting quite gloomy, and a hurried consultation between the umpire and the rival captains resulted in Mr. Merrywether announcing through a megaphone that the game would have to be declared a draw, which tie must be played off at Harmony, according to previous arrangements, on the following Saturday.
Then the vast crowd commenced to scatter in a great hurry, fearful lest the rain start falling and drench them. There was more or less confusion as scores of cars and carryalls rushed along the road leading to Harmony, distant ten miles or more. Since everybody hurried, the grounds were soon deserted save by a few who remained to look after things.
Jack and several of the boys would have lingered to talk matters over, but the lateness of the hour and the overcast sky forbade such a thing, so they, too, headed for their various homes.
Jack, however, did manage to locate Fred, and made it a point to overtake the other on the road. He linked his arm with that of the third baseman, and dropped into step.
"I want to say, Fred, that stop and throw of yours saved the day for Chester," he told the other. "If you had drawn Steve a foot away from home Clifford would have slid safe, for he was coming like a hurricane. Chester will remember that fine work of yours for a long time. And the girls, Fred, why I thought they'd have a fit, they carried on so. I'm sure you pleased some of your best friends a whole lot by being Johnny-on-the-spot today!"
"Thank you for saying it, anyhow, Jack," the other was saying, and somehow Jack could not help thinking Fred did not show just as much gratification as most fellows would have done at being so highly complimented.
But then, he must make allowances. If matters were as desperate as he suspected, poor Fred must by now be feeling the effect of having allowed his chance for securing all that money, so badly needed in order to help his mother, slip through his fingers. Now that all the excitement had died away, and he found himself face to face with the old question, with the prospect of seeing his mother's tired looks again reproaching him, Fred must be wondering whether he had after all chosen wisely in letting honor take the place of duty.
So Jack commenced to chatter about the game, and how proud Chester folks would be of the young athletes who represented the town that day.
"It's pretty evident, you must see, Fred," he continued, after thus arousing the other's interest, "that our big task of getting subscriptions toward building or renting a building for a club-house and gymnasium has been helped mightily by the clever work done this day. I heard of three influential gentlemen who had declared they were willing to take a hand, just because such determined and hard-playing boys stood in need of such an institution."
"Yes, Chester has been away behind the times in looking after the morals and requirements of her young people," admitted Fred. "There's Marshall with its fine Y. M. C. A. building and gym., and even Harmony has a pretty good institution where the young fellows can belong, and spend many a winter's evening in athletic stunts calculated to build up their bodies, and make them more healthy."
"Well, believe me, the day is about to dawn when Chester will be put on the map for the same stuff," asserted Jack, not boastingly, but with full confidence; "and these splendid baseball matches we're pulling off nowadays are bound to help to bring that same event to pass. Men who had almost forgotten that they used to handle a bat in their kid days have had their old enthusiasm for the national sport of America revived. Depend upon it, Fred, in good time we'll be playing football, hockey, basketball, and every sort of thing that goes to make up the life of a healthy boy."
In this fashion did the pair talk as they hurried along. The drops were beginning to come down faster now, showing that when the game was called, it had been a very wise move, for many people must otherwise have been caught in the rain.
Fred seemed to be fairly cheerful at the time Jack shook his hand again, and once more congratulated him on his fine work for the team. Looking back after they had parted, Jack saw the boy stop at his door and hesitate about entering, which seemed to be a strange thing for a member of the gallant baseball team that had covered themselves with glory on that particular day to do.
But then Jack could guess how possibly Fred might be feeling his heart reproach him again because he had chosen his course along the line of honor. He must get a grip on himself before he could pass in and see that weary look on her face. Jack shook his head as he hurried on to his own house. He felt that possibly the crisis in Fred's young life had, after all, only been postponed, and not altogether passed. That terrible temptation might come to him again, more powerful than ever; and in the game at Harmony, if a choice were given him, would he be just as able to resist selling himself as he had on this wonderful day?
THE PUZZLE GROWS
It was just three days afterwards when Jack saw his two chums again. On Sunday morning his father had occasion to start to a town about thirty miles distant, to see a sick aunt who depended on him for advice. She had sent word that he must fetch Jack along with him, Jack being the old lady's special favorite and probably heir to her property.
Jack's father was a lawyer, and often had trips to make in connection with real estate deals, and estates that were located in distant parts. Consequently, it was nothing unusual for him to receive a sudden call. Jack might have preferred staying in Chester, where things were commencing to grow pretty warm along the line of athletics, his favorite diversion. His parents, however, believed it would be unwise to offend the querulous old dame who was so crotchetty that she might take it into her head to change her will, and leave everything to some society for the amelioration of the condition of stray cats. It would be a great pity to have all that fine property go out of the Winters' family, they figured; and perhaps they were wise in thinking that way; little Jack cared about it, not being of a worldly mind.
So when he sighted Toby and Steve on the afternoon of his return, he gave the pair a hail, and quickly joined them on the street.
"Glad you've got back home, Jack, sure I am," said Toby, the first thing.
"Why," added Steve, "we didn't even get a chance to compare notes with you about that great game on Saturday, though Toby and myself have talked the subject threadbare by now."
"And one thing we both agree about, Jack," continued Toby, with a grin.
"What's that?" demanded the other.
"Fred saved the day when he stopped that terrible line drive of O'Leary, and shot the ball home as straight as a die. No professional player could possibly have done it a shade better, I'm telling you."
"It was a grand play," admitted Jack, "and I told Fred so while we walked home together."
Steve looked keenly at him when Jack said this.
"Oh! then you got a chance to talk with Fred after the game, did you?" he ventured to say, in a queer sort of way. "How did Fred act then, Jack?"
"Well, I must say he didn't impress me as being over-enthusiastic," admitted Jack. "You see, he had done his whole duty in the heat of action, and after he had a chance to cool off and realize what he had lost, he may have felt a touch of remorse, for he certainly does love that poor mother of his a heap. I can understand just how he must be having a terrible struggle in his mind as to what is the right course for him to pursue."
At that Toby gave a snort that plainly told how he was beginning to doubt certain things in which he had hitherto fully believed.
"Now, looky here, Jack," he started to say good-humoredly, "don't you reckon that you might have been mistaken in thinking poor Fred was dickering with some of those men to throw the game, so they could make big money out of if? Why, after all, perhaps his looking so dismal comes from his feeling so bad about his mother. We ought to give him the benefit of the doubt, I say."
"I sometimes feel that way myself, Toby, don't you know?" acknowledged Jack in his usual frank fashion. "And yet when I consider the conditions, and remember how suspiciously Fred acted with that sporty-looking gentleman, I find myself owning up that it looks bad for the boy. But at any rate he succeeded in fighting his own battle, and winning a victory over his temptation."
"But, Jack, I'm afraid he's bound to have to go through the whole business again," interposed Steve.
"Do you know I more than half suspected you had got wind of something new in the affair, Steve," Jack told him. "I could see how your eyes glistened as you listened to what Toby here was saying; and once or twice you opened your mouth to interrupt him, but thought better of it. Now tell us what it means, Steve."
"For one thing, that man has been at Fred again," asserted the other, positively.
"Do you know this for a certainty?" Jack asked.
"Why, I saw them talking, I tell you," explained Steve, persistently. "This is how it came about. You see, yesterday, as Toby here couldn't go fishing with me I started off alone, taking my bait pail and rod along, and bent on getting a mess of perch at a favorite old fishin' hole I knew along the shore of the lake about a mile or so from town."
"Meaning that same place you showed me, near where the road comes down close to the shore of the water?" suggested Toby, quickly.
"Right you are, son," continued Steve, nodding his head as he spoke. "Well, I had pretty fair luck for a while, and then the perch quit taking hold, so I sat down to wait till they got hungry again. And while I squatted there on the log that runs out over the water at my favorite hole, I heard the mutter of voices as some people came slowly along the road.
"First I didn't pay much attention to the sounds, believing that just as like as not it was a couple of town boys, and I didn't like the idea of their finding out where I got such heavy strings of fish once in so often. And then as they passed closer to me something familiar in one of the voices made me twist my head around.
"Well, it was Fred Badger, all right, walking along with that same sporty-looking stranger. And say, he isn't such a bad-looking customer after all, Jack, when you get a close look at him, being gray-bearded, and a bit halting in his walk like he might have been injured some time or other. It's more the clothes he wears that give him the sporty appearance, though, if you say he's one of that betting bunch up at Harmony, he must be a bad lot.
"They had their heads together, and seemed to be discussing something at a great rate. I couldn't hear what they said, the more the pity, for it might have given us a line on the whole silly business; but the man seemed trying to convince Fred about something, and the boy was arguing kind of feebly as if ready to give in. Well, something tempted me to give a cough after I'd stood up on the log. Both of 'em looked that way in a hurry. I waved my hand at Fred, and he answered my signal, but while you might have expected that he'd come back to ask what luck I had, and mebbe introduce his friend, he didn't do that same by a jugfull. Fact is he said something to the man, and the two of them hurried along the road."
Jack felt his heart grow heavy again. He was taking a great interest in the affairs of Fred Badger, and would be very much shocked should the other fall headlong into the net that seemed to be spread for his young feet.
"I know for one thing," he told the others, "I'll be mighty glad when that tie game is played off with Harmony, no matter which side wins the verdict. And I hope Fred is given no such chance to choose between right and wrong as came his way last Saturday. If those men increase the bribe his scruples may give way. And if only Fred could understand that his mother would utterly refuse to profit by his dishonor, he might have his heart steeled to turn the tempters down."
"Then, Jack, why don't you try and figure out how you could put it up to Fred that way?" urged Toby, eagerly.
"I've tried to think how it could be done without offending him, or allowing him to suspect that I know what he's going through," mused Jack. "There might be a way to mention a hypothetical case, as though it were some other fellow I once knew who had the same kind of choice put up to him, and took the wrong end, only to have his father or sister, for whom he had sinned, reproach him bitterly, and refuse to accept tainted money."
"Gee whiz! it does take you to hatch up ways and means, Jack!" exclaimed Toby, delightedly. "Now, I should say that might be a clever stunt. You can warn him without making him feel that you're on to his game. Figure it out, Jack, and get busy before next Saturday comes, won't you?"
"Yes," added Steve, "Fred Badger is too good a fellow to let drop. We need him the worst kind to fill that gap at third. Besides, suspecting what we do, it would be a shame for us not to hold out a helping hand to a comrade who's up against it good and hard."
"What you say, Steve, does your big heart credit," remarked Jack, "but it might be wise for us to drop our voices a little, because somehow we have wandered on, and are right now getting pretty close to Fred's home, which you know lies just on the other side of that clump of bushes."
"Did you steer us this way on purpose, Jack!" demanded Toby, suspiciously.
"Why, perhaps I had a little notion of stopping in and seeing Mrs. Badger," admitted the other, chuckling. "In fact, my mother commissioned me to fetch this glass of home-made preserves over to her, knowing that Fred's mother has not been at all well. Yes, I own up I was influential in making her think that way, and was on my way when I ran across you fellows."
"Huh! I wouldn't be at all surprised, Jack!" declared Toby, "if you had a scheme in your mind right now to put a crimp in this foolishness on the part of Fred Badger."
"I'm not saying I haven't, remember, fellows," laughed the other, who evidently did not mean to show his full hand just then. "When the time comes perhaps I'll let you in on this thing. I want to do some more thinking first, though. Many a good idea is wasted because it isn't given a foundation in the beginning. Now, suppose you boys wait for me here while I step around and leave this little comfit with Mrs. Badger with my mother's compliments."
"Just as you say, Jack," muttered Steve, looking rather unhappy because lie was not to be taken wholly into the confidence of the other. "Don't stay too long, though, unless you mean to tell us all that happens in there."
Jack only smiled in return, and stepped forward. His comrades saw him suddenly draw back as though he had made a discovery. Then turning toward them, he beckoned with his hand, at the same time holding up a warning finger as though telling them not to make the least noise.
"Now, what's in the wind, Jack?" whispered Toby, as they reached the side of the other.
"Take a peek and see who's here!" Jack told them.
At that both the others advanced cautiously and stared beyond the big clump of high bushes. They almost immediately shrank back again, and the look on their faces announced the receipt of quite a shock.
"Great Caesar! is that chap the man you've both been talking about, tell me?" asked Toby, half under his breath.
"He is certainly the party I saw Fred talking with so mysteriously," asserted Jack, positively.
"And the same fellow who was walking along the road with Fred while I sat on my log, fishing," added Steve, convincingly.
"But what under the sun is he doing out here near Fred's house, leaning on that fence, and keeping tabs on the little Badger home, I'd like to know?" Toby went on to say, wonder written in big letters on his face.
A FAIRY IN THE BADGER HOME
"Let's watch and see what it all means?" suggested Steve, quickly.
Even Jack did not seem averse to doing that same thing. In fact, his curiosity had been aroused to fever pitch by so unexpectedly discovering the very man of whom they had been lately talking hovering around poor Fred's home in such a suspicious fashion.
Peeping around the high bushes again, they saw him leaning idly on the picket fence. He seemed to have a stout cane, and was smoking a cigar, though in his undoubted eagerness to keep "tabs" on the humble house he forgot to draw smoke from the weed between his teeth.
"I must say this is going it pretty strong," grumbled Toby, half under his breath; "to have that chap prowling around Fred's home, just like he was afraid the boy'd get out of his grip, and so meant to find a stronger hold on him."
"That's it," assented Steve; "he wants to learn why Fred seems to hold back. He means to meet the little mother, and the two small girls, one of 'em a cripple in the bargain. It's a shame that he should push himself in on that family, and he a city sport in the bargain. We ought to find a way to chase him out of town, don't you think, Jack?"
"Hold up, and perhaps we may learn something right now," whispered the other, after a hasty look; "because there's Fred's mother coming out of the door."
"Gee whiz! can she be meaning to meet this man?" ventured Toby, apparently appalled by his own suspicion.