When practice time rolled around for Ken next day, he went upon the field once more with his hopes renewed and bright.
"I certainly do die hard," he laughed to himself. "But I can never go down and out now--never!"
Something seemed to ring in Ken's ears like peals of bells. In spite of his awkwardness Coach Arthurs had made him a varsity man; in spite of his unpreparedness old Crab had given him a passing mark; in spite of his unworthiness President Halstead had made him famous.
"I surely am the lucky one," said Ken, for the hundredth time. "And now I'm going to force my luck." Ken had lately revolved in his mind a persistent idea that he meant to propound to the coach.
Ken arrived on the field a little later than usual, to find Arthurs for once minus his worried look. He was actually smiling, and Ken soon saw the reason for this remarkable change was the presence of a new player out in centre field.
"Hello, Peg! things are lookin' up," said the coach, beaming. "That's Homans out there in centre--Roy Homans, a senior and a crackerjack ball-player. I tried to get him to come out for the team last year, but he wouldn't spare the time. But he's goin' to play this season--said the president's little talk got him. He's a fast, heady, scientific player, just the one to steady you kids."
Before Ken could reply his attention was attracted from Homans to another new player in uniform now walking up to Arthurs. He was tall, graceful, powerful, had red hair, keen dark eyes, a clean-cut profile and square jaw.
"I've come out to try for the team," he said, quietly, to the coach.
"You're a little late, ain't you?" asked Worry, gruffly; but he ran a shrewd glance over the lithe form.
"Must have been stirred up by that talk of President Halstead's, wasn't you?"
"Yes." There was something quiet and easy about the stranger, and Ken liked him at once.
"Where do you play?" went on Worry.
"Can you hit? Talk sense now, and mebbe you'll save me work. Can you hit?"
"Can you throw?"
"Yes." He spoke with quiet assurance.
"Can you run?" almost shouted Worry. He was nervous and irritable those days, and it annoyed him for unknown youths to speak calmly of such things.
"Run? Yes, a little. I did the hundred last year in nine and four-fifths."
"What! You can't kid me! Who are you?" cried Worry, getting red in the face. "I've seen you somewhere."
"My name's Ray."
"Say! Not Ray, the intercollegiate champion?"
"I'm the fellow. I talked it over with Murray. He kicked, but I didn't mind that. I promised to try to keep in shape to win the sprints at the intercollegiate meet."
"Say! Get out there in left field! Quick!" shouted Worry.... "Peg, hit him some flies. Lam 'em a mile! That fellow's a sprinter, Peg. What luck it would be if he can play ball! Hit 'em at him!"
Ken took the ball Worry tossed him, and, picking up a bat, began to knock flies out to Ray. The first few he made easy for the outfielder, and then he hit balls harder and off to the right or left. Without appearing to exert himself Ray got under them. Ken watched him, and also kept the tail of his eye on Worry. The coach appeared to be getting excited, and he ordered Ken to hit the balls high and far away. Ken complied, but he could not hit a ball over Ray's head. He tried with all his strength. He had never seen a champion sprinter, and now he marvelled at the wonderful stride.
"Oh! but his running is beautiful!" exclaimed Ken.
"That's enough! Come in here!" yelled Worry to Ray.... "Peg, he makes Dreer look slow. I never saw as fast fieldin' as that."
When Ray came trotting in without seeming to be even warmed up, Worry blurted out: "You ain't winded--after all that? Must be in shape?"
"I'm always in shape," replied Ray.
"Pick up a bat!" shouted Worry. "Here, Duncan, pitch this fellow a few. Speed 'em, curve 'em, strike him out, hit him--anything!"
Ray was left-handed, and he stood up to the plate perfectly erect, with his bat resting quietly on his shoulder. He stepped straight, swung with an even, powerful swing, and he hit the first ball clear over the right-field bleachers. It greatly distanced Dreer's hit.
"What a drive!" gasped Ken.
"Oh!" choked Worry. "That's enough! You needn't lose my balls. Bunt one, now."
Ray took the same position, and as the ball came up he appeared to drop the bat upon it and dart away at the same instant.
Worry seemed to be trying to control violent emotion. "Next batter up!" he called, hoarsely, and sat down on the bench. He was breathing hard, and beads of sweat stood out on his brow.
Ken went up to Worry, feeling that now was the time to acquaint the coach with his new idea. Eager as Ken was he had to force himself to take this step. All the hope and dread, nervousness and determination of the weeks of practice seemed to accumulate in that moment. He stammered and stuttered, grew speechless, and then as Worry looked up in kind surprise, Ken suddenly grew cool and earnest.
"Mr. Arthurs, will you try me in the box?"
"What's that, Peg?" queried the coach, sharply.
"Will you give me a trial in the box? I've wanted one all along. You put me in once when we were in the cage, but you made me hit the batters."
"Pitch? you, Peg? Why not? Why didn't I think of it? I'm sure gettin' to be like 'em fat-head directors. You've got steam, Peg, but can you curve a ball? Let's see your fingers."
"Yes, I can curve a ball round a corner. Please give me a trial, Mr. Arthurs. I failed in the infield, and I'm little good in the outfield. But I know I can pitch."
The coach gave Ken one searching glance. Then he called all the candidates in to the plate, and ordered Dean, the stocky little catcher, to don his breast-protector, mask, and mitt.
"Peg," said the coach, "Dean will sign you--one finger for a straight ball, two for a curve."
When Ken walked to the box all his muscles seemed quivering and tense, and he had a contraction in his throat. This was his opportunity. He was not unnerved as he had been when he was trying for the other positions. All Ken's life he had been accustomed to throwing. At his home he had been the only boy who could throw a stone across the river; the only one who could get a ball over the high-school tower. A favorite pastime had always been the throwing of small apples, or walnuts, or stones, and he had acquired an accuracy that made it futile for his boy comrades to compete with him. Curving a ball had come natural to him, and he would have pitched all his high-school games had it not been for the fact that no one could catch him, and, moreover, none of the boys had found any fun in batting against him.
When Ken faced the first batter a feeling came over him that he had never before had on the ball field. He was hot, trembling, hurried, but this new feeling was apart from these. His feet were on solid ground, and his arm felt as it had always in those throwing contests where he had so easily won. He seemed to decide from McCord's position at the plate what to throw him.
Ken took his swing. It was slow, easy, natural. But the ball travelled with much greater speed than the batter expected from such motion. McCord let the first two balls go by, and Arthurs called them both strikes. Then Ken pitched an out-curve which McCord fanned at helplessly. Arthurs sent Trace up next. Ken saw that the coach was sending up the weaker hitters first. Trace could not even make a foul. Raymond was third up, and Ken had to smile at the scowling second-baseman. Remembering his weakness for pulling away from the plate, Ken threw Raymond two fast curves on the outside, and then a slow wide curve, far out. Raymond could not have hit the first two with a paddle, and the third lured him irresistibly out of position and made him look ridiculous. He slammed his bat down and slouched to the bench. Duncan turned out to be the next easy victim. Four batters had not so much as fouled Ken. And Ken knew he was holding himself in--that, in fact, he had not let out half his speed. Blake, the next player, hit up a little fly that Ken caught, and Schoonover made the fifth man to strike out.
Then Weir stood over the plate, and he was a short, sturdy batter, hard to pitch to. He looked as if he might be able to hit any kind of a ball. Ken tried him first with a straight fast one over the middle of the plate. Weir hit it hard, but it went foul. And through Ken's mind flashed the thought that he would pitch no more speed to Weir or players who swung as he did. Accordingly Ken tried the slow curve that had baffled Raymond. Weir popped it up and retired in disgust.
The following batter was Graves, who strode up smiling, confident, sarcastic, as if he knew he could do more than the others. Ken imagined what the third-baseman would have said if the coach had not been present. Graves always ruffled Ken the wrong way.
"I'll strike him out if I break my arm!" muttered Ken to himself. He faced Graves deliberately and eyed his position at bat. Graves as deliberately laughed at him.
"Pitch up, pitch up!" he called out.
"Right over the pan!" retorted Ken, as quick as an echo. He went hot as fire all over. This fellow Graves had some strange power of infuriating him.
Ken took a different swing, which got more of his weight in motion, and let his arm out. Like a white bullet the ball shot plateward, rising a little so that Graves hit vainly under it. The ball surprised Dean, knocked his hands apart as if they had been paper, and resounded from his breast-protector. Ken pitched the second ball in the same place with a like result, except that Dean held on to it. Graves had lost his smile and wore an expression of sickly surprise. The third ball travelled by him and cracked in Dean's mitt, and Arthurs called it a strike.
"Easy there--that'll do!" yelled the coach. "Come in here, Peg. Out on the field now, boys."
Homans stopped Ken as they were passing each other, and Ken felt himself under the scrutiny of clear gray eyes.
"Youngster, you look good to me," said Homans.
Ken also felt himself regarded with astonishment by many of the candidates; and Ray ran a keen, intuitive glance over him from head to foot. But it was the coach's manner that struck Ken most forcibly. Worry was utterly unlike himself.
"Why didn't you tell me about this before--you--you--" he yelled, red as a beet in the face. He grasped Ken with both hands, then he let him go, and picking up a ball and a mitt he grasped him again. Without a word he led Ken across the field and to a secluded corner behind the bleachers. Ken felt for all the world as if he was being led to execution.
Worry took off his coat and vest and collar. He arranged a block of wood for a plate and stepped off so many paces and placed another piece of wood to mark the pitcher's box. Then he donned the mitt.
"Peg, somethin's comin' off. I know it. I never make mistakes in sizin' up pitchers. But I've had such hard luck this season that I can't believe my own eyes. We've got to prove it. Now you go out there and pitch to me. Just natural like at first."
Ken pitched a dozen balls or more, some in-curves, some out-curves. Then he threw what he called his drop, which he executed by a straight overhand swing.
"Oh--a beauty!" yelled Worry. "Where, Peg, where did you learn that? Another, lower now."
Worry fell over trying to stop the glancing drop.
"Try straight ones now, Peg, right over the middle. See how many you can pitch."
One after another, with free, easy motion, Ken shot balls squarely over the plate. Worry counted them, and suddenly, after the fourteenth pitch, he stood up and glared at Ken.
"Are you goin' to keep puttin' 'em over this pan all day that way?"
"Mr. Arthurs, I couldn't miss that plate if I pitched a week," replied Ken.
"Stop callin' me Mister!" yelled Worry. "Now, put 'em where I hold my hands--inside corner... outside corner... again... inside now, low... another... a fast one over, now... high, inside. Oh, Peg, this ain't right. I ain't seein' straight. I think I'm dreamin'. Come on with 'em!"
Fast and true Ken sped the balls into Worry's mitt. Seldom did the coach have to move his hands at all.
"Peg Ward, did you know that pitchin' was all control, puttin' the ball where you wanted to?" asked Worry, stopping once more.
"No, I didn't," replied Ken.
"How did you learn to peg a ball as straight as this?"
Ken told him how he had thrown at marks all his life.
"Why didn't you tell me before?" Worry seemed not to be able to get over Ken's backwardness. "Look at the sleepless nights and the gray hairs you could have saved me." He stamped around as if furious, yet underneath the surface Ken saw that the coach was trying to hide his elation. "Here now," he shouted, suddenly, "a few more, and peg 'em! See? Cut loose and let me see what steam you've got!"
Ken whirled with all his might and delivered the ball with all his weight in the swing. The ball seemed to diminish in size, it went so swiftly. Near the plate it took an upward jump, and it knocked Worry's mitt off his hand.
Worry yelled out, then he looked carefully at Ken, but he made no effort to go after the ball or pick up the mitt.
"Did I say for you to knock my block off?... Come here, Peg. You're only a youngster. Do you think you can keep that? Are you goin' to let me teach you to pitch? Have you got any nerve? Are you up in the air at the thought of Place and Herne?"
Then he actually hugged Ken, and kept hold of him as if he might get away. He was panting and sweating. All at once he sat down on one of the braces of the bleachers and began mopping his face. He seemed to cool down, to undergo a subtle change.
"Peg," he said, quietly, "I'm as bad as some of 'em fat-head directors.... You see I didn't have no kind of a pitcher to work on this spring. I kept on hopin'. Strange why I didn't quit. And now--my boy, you're a kid, but you're a natural born pitcher."
Sorry, no summary available yet.