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The slow return to the tavern, dressing and going to the station, the ride home, the arrival at the training-house, the close-pressing, silent companionship of Reddy Ray, Worry, and Raymond--these were dim details of that day of calamity. Ken Ward's mind was dead--locked on that fatal moment when he pitched a low ball to MacNeff. His friends left him in the darkness of his room, knowing instinctively that it was best for him to be alone.
Ken undressed and crawled wearily into bed and stretched out as if he knew and was glad he would never move his limbs again. The silence and the darkness seemed to hide him from himself. His mind was a whirling riot of fire, and in it was a lurid picture of that moment with MacNeff at bat. Over and over and over he lived it in helpless misery. His ears were muffled with that huge tide of sound. Again and again and again he pitched the last ball, to feel his heart stop beating, to see the big captain lunge at the ball, to watch it line and rise and soar.
But gradually exhaustion subdued his mental strife, and he wandered in mind and drifted into sleep. When he woke it was with a cold, unhappy shrinking from the day. His clock told the noon hour; he had slept long. Outside the June sunlight turned the maple leaves to gold. Was it possible, Ken wondered dully, for the sun ever to shine again? Then Scotty came bustling in.
"Mr. Wau-rd, won't ye be hovin' breakfast?" he asked, anxiously.
"Scotty, I'll never eat again," replied Ken.
There were quick steps upon the stairs and Worry burst in, rustling a newspaper.
"Hello, old man!" he called, cheerily. "Say! Look at this!"
He thrust the paper before Ken's eyes and pointed to a column:
Place Beat Wayne by a Lucky Drive. Young Ward Pitched the Greatest Game Ever Pitched on Place Field and Lost It in the Ninth, with Two Men Out and Three and Two on MacNeff
Ken's dull, gloom-steeped mind underwent a change, but he could not speak. He sat up in bed, clutching the paper, and gazing from it to the coach. Raymond came in, followed by Homans, and, last, Reddy Ray, who sat down upon the bed. They were all smiling, and that seemed horrible to Ken.
"But, Worry--Reddy--I--I lost the game--threw it away!" faltered Ken.
"Oh no, Peg. You pitched a grand game. Only in the stretch you got one ball too low," said Reddy.
"Peg, you started to go up early in the game," added Worry, with a smile, as if the fact was amusing. "You made your first balloon-ascension in the seventh. And in the ninth you exploded. I never seen a better case of up-in-the-air. But, Peg, in spite of it you pitched a wonderful game. You had me guessin'. I couldn't take you out of the box. Darn me if I didn't think you'd shut Place out in spite of your rattles!"
"Then--after all--it's not so terrible?" Ken asked, breathlessly.
"Why, boy, it's all right. We can lose a game, and to lose one like that--it's as good as winnin'. Say! I'm a liar if I didn't see 'em Place hitters turnin' gray-headed! Listen! That game over there was tough on all the kids, you most of all, of course. But you all stood the gaff. You've fought out a grillin' big game away from home. That's over. You'll never go through that again. But it was the makin' of you.... Here, look this over! Mebbe it'll cheer you up."
He took something from Raymond and tossed it upon the bed. It looked like a round, red, woolly bundle. Ken unfolded it, to disclose a beautiful sweater, with a great white "W" in the centre.
"The boys all got 'em this mornin'," added Worry.
It was then that the tragedy of the Place game lost its hold on Ken, and retreated until it stood only dimly in outline.
"I'll--I'll be down to lunch," said Ken, irrelevantly.
His smiling friends took the hint and left the room.
Ken hugged the sweater while reading the Times-Star's account of the game. Whoever the writer was, Ken loved him. Then he hid his face in the pillow, and though he denied to himself that he was crying, when he arose it was certain that the pillow was wet.
An hour later Ken presented himself at lunch, once more his old amiable self. The boys freely discussed baseball--in fact, for weeks they had breathed and dreamed baseball--but Ken noted, for the first time, where superiority was now added to the old confidence. The Wayne varsity had found itself. It outclassed Herne; it was faster than Place; it stood in line for championship honors.
"Peg, you needn't put on your uniform to-day," said the coach. "You rest up. But go over to Murray and have your arm rubbed. Is it sore or stiff?"
"Not at all. I could work again to-day," replied Ken.
That afternoon, alone in his room, he worked out his pitching plan for Saturday's game. It did not differ materially from former plans. But for a working basis he had self-acquired knowledge of the Place hitters. It had been purchased at dear cost. He feared none of them except Prince. He decided to use a high curve ball over the plate and let Prince hit, trusting to luck and the players behind him. Ken remembered how the Place men had rapped hard balls at Raymond. Most of them were right-field hitters. Ken decided to ask Homans to play Reddy Ray in right field. Also he would arrange a sign with Reddy and Raymond and McCord so they would know when he intended to pitch speed on the outside corner of the plate. For both his curve and fast ball so pitched were invariably hit toward right field. When it came to MacNeff, Ken knew from the hot rankling deep down in him that he would foil that hitter. He intended to make the others hit, pitching them always, to the best of his judgment and skill, those balls they were least likely to hit safely, yet which would cut the corners of the plate if let go. No bases on balls this game, that he vowed grimly. And if he got in a pinch he would fall back upon his last resort, the fast jump ball; and now that he had gone through his baptism of fire he knew he was not likely to lose his control. So after outlining his plan he believed beyond reasonable doubt that he could win the game.
The evening of that day he confided his plan to Reddy Ray and had the gratification of hearing it warmly commended. While Ken was with Reddy the coach sent word up to all rooms that the boys were to "cut" baseball talk. They were to occupy their minds with reading, study, or games.
"It's pretty slow," said Reddy. "Peg, let's have some fun with somebody."
"I'm in. What'll we do?"
"Can't you think? You're always leaving schemes to me. Use your brains, boy."
Ken pondered a moment and then leaped up in great glee.
"Reddy, I've got something out of sight," he cried.
"Spring it, then."
"Well, it's this: Kel Raymond is perfectly crazy about his new sweater. He moons over it and he carries it around everywhere. Now it happens that Kel is a deep sleeper. He's hard to wake up. I've always had to shake him and kick him to wake him every morning. I'm sure we could get him in that sweater without waking him. So to-morrow morning you come down early, before seven, and help me put the sweater on Kel. We'll have Worry and the boys posted and we'll call them in to see Kel, and then we'll wake him and swear he slept in his sweater."
"Peg, you've a diabolical bent of mind. That'll be great. I'll be on the job bright and early."
Ken knew he could rely on the chattering of the sparrows in the woodbine round his window. They always woke him, and this morning was no exception. It was after six and a soft, balmy breeze blew in. Ken got up noiselessly and dressed. Raymond snored in blissful ignorance of the conspiracy. Presently a gentle tapping upon the door told Ken that Reddy was in the hall. Ken let him in and they held a whispered consultation.
"Let's see," said Reddy, picking up the sweater. "It's going to be an all-fired hard job. This sweater's tight. We'll wake him."
"Not on your life!" exclaimed Ken. "Not if we're quick. Now you roll up the sweater so--and stretch it on your hands--so--and when I lift Kel up you slip it over his head. It'll be like pie."
The operation was deftly though breathlessly performed, and all it brought from Raymond was a sleepy: "Aw--lemme sleep," and then he was gone again.
Ken and Reddy called all the boys, most of whom were in their pajamas, and Worry and Scotty and Murray, and got them all up-stairs in Raymond's room. Raymond lay in bed very innocently asleep, and no one would have suspected that he had not slept in his sweater.
"Well, I'll be dog-goned!" ejaculated Worry, laughing till he cried. Murray was hugely delighted. These men were as much boys as the boys they trained.
The roar of laughter awakened Raymond, and he came out of sleep very languid and drowsy.
"Aw, Ken, lemme sleep s'more."
He opened his eyes and, seeing the room full of boys and men, he looked bewildered, then suspicious.
"Wull, what do all you guys want?"
"We only came in to see you asleep in your new varsity sweater," replied Ken, with charming candor.
At this Raymond discovered the sweater and he leaped out of bed.
"It's a lie! I never slept in it! Somebody jobbed me! I'll lick him!... It's a lie, I say!"
He began to hop up and down in a black fury. The upper half of him was swathed in the red sweater; beneath that flapped the end of his short nightgown; and out of that stuck his thin legs, all knotted and spotted with honorable bruises won in fielding hard-batted balls. He made so ludicrous a sight that his visitors roared with laughter. Raymond threw books, shoes, everything he could lay his hands upon, and drove them out in confusion.
Saturday seemed a long time in arriving, but at last it came. All morning the boys kept close under cover of the training-house. Some one sent them a package of placards. These were round, in the shape of baseballs. They were in the college colors, the background of which was a bright red, and across this had been printed in white the words: "Peg Ward's Day!"
"What do you think of that?" cried the boys, with glistening eyes. But Ken was silent.
Worry came in for lunch and reported that the whole west end of the city had been placarded.
"The students have had millions of 'em cards printed," said Worry. "They're everywhere. Murray told me there was a hundred students tackin' 'em up on the stands and bleachers. They've got 'em on sticks of wood for pennants for the girls.... 'Peg Ward's Day!' Well, I guess!"
At two-thirty o'clock the varsity ran upon the field, to the welcoming though somewhat discordant music of the university band. What the music lacked in harmony it made up in volume, and as noise appeared to be the order of the day, it was most appropriate. However, a great booming cheer from the crowded stands drowned the band.
It was a bright summer day, with the warm air swimming in the thick, golden light of June, with white clouds sailing across the blue sky. Grant Field resembled a beautiful crater with short, sloping sides of white and gold and great splashes of red and dots of black all encircling a round lake of emerald. Flashes of gray darted across the green, and these were the Place players in practice. Everywhere waved and twinkled and gleamed the red-and-white Wayne placards. And the front of the stands bore wide-reaching bands of these colored cards. The grand-stand, with its pretty girls and gowns, and waving pennants, and dark-coated students, resembled a huge mosaic of many colors, moving and flashing in the sunlight. One stand set apart for the Place supporters was a solid mass of blue and gold. And opposite to it, in vivid contrast, was a long circle of bleachers, where five thousand red-placarded, red-ribboned Wayne students sat waiting to tear the air into shreds with cheers. Dale and Stevens and Bryan, wearing their varsity sweaters, strode to and fro on the cinder-path, and each carried a megaphone. Cheers seemed to lurk in the very atmosphere. A soft, happy, subdued roar swept around the field. Fun and good-nature and fair-play and love of college pervaded that hum of many voices. Yet underneath it all lay a suppressed spirit, a hidden energy, waiting for the battle.
When Wayne had finished a brief, snappy practice, Kern, a National League umpire, called the game, with Place at bat. Ken Ward walked to the pitcher's slab amid a prolonged outburst, and ten thousand red cards bearing his name flashed like mirrors against the sunlight. Then the crashing Place yell replied in defiance.
Ken surveyed his fellow-players, from whom came low, inspiriting words; then, facing the batter, Keene, he eyed him in cool speculation, and swung into supple action.
The game started with a rush. Keene dumped the ball down the third-base line. Blake, anticipating the play, came rapidly in, and bending while in motion picked up the ball and made a perfect snap-throw to McCord, beating Keene by a foot. Prince drove a hot grass-cutter through the infield, and the Place stand let out shrill, exultant yells. MacNeff swung powerfully on the first ball, which streaked like a flitting wing close under his chin. Prince, with a good lead, had darted for second. It was wonderful how his little, short legs carried him so swiftly. And his slide was what might have been expected of a famous football player. He hit the ground and shot into the bag just as Raymond got Dean's unerring throw too late. Again the Place rooters howled. MacNeff watched his second strike go by. The third pitch, remorselessly true to that fatal place, retired him on strikes; and a roll of thunder pealed from under the Wayne bleachers. Starke struck at the first ball given him. The Place waiters were not waiting on Ken to-day; evidently the word had gone out to hit. Ken's beautiful, speedy ball, breast high, was certainly a temptation. Starke lifted a long, lofty fly far beyond Homans, who ran and ran, and turned to get it gracefully at his breast.
Worry Arthurs sat stern and intent upon the Wayne bench. "Get that hit back and go them a run better!" was his sharp order.
The big, loose-jointed Salisbury, digging his foot into the dirt, settled down and swung laboriously. Homans waited. The pitch was a strike, and so was the next. But strikes were small matters for the patient Homans. He drew three balls after that, and then on the next he hit one of his short, punky safeties through the left side of the infield. The Wayne crowd accepted it with vigor of hands and feet. Raymond trotted up, aggressive and crafty. He intended to bunt, and the Place infield knew it and drew in closer. Raymond fouled one, then another, making two strikes. But he dumped the next and raced for the base. Salisbury, big and slow as he was, got the ball and threw Raymond out. Homans over-ran second, intending to go on, but, halted by Weir's hoarse coaching, he ran back.
When Reddy Ray stepped out it was to meet a rousing cheer, and then the thousands of feet went crash! crash! crash! Reddy fouled the first ball over the grand-stand. Umpire Kern threw out a new one, gleaming white. The next two pitches were wide; the following one Reddy met with the short poke he used when hitting to left field. The ball went over Martin's head, scoring Homans with the first run of the game. That allowed the confident Wayne crowd to get up and yell long and loud. Weir fouled out upon the first ball pitched, and Blake, following him, forced Reddy out at second on an infield hit.
Place tied the score in the second inning on Weir's fumble of Martin's difficult grounder, a sacrifice by Horton, and Griffith's safe fly back of second.
With the score tied, the teams blanked inning after inning until the fifth. Wayne found Salisbury easy to bat, but a Place player was always in front of the hit. And Place found Peg Ward unsolvable when hits meant runs. Ken kept up his tireless, swift cannonading over the plate, making his opponents hit, and when they got a runner on base he extended himself with the fast raise ball. In the first of the fifth, with two out, Prince met one of Ken's straight ones hard and fair and drove the ball into the bleachers for a home-run. That solid blue-and-gold square of Place supporters suddenly became an insane tossing, screeching mêlée.
The great hit also seemed to unleash the fiery spirit which had waited its chance. The Wayne players came in for their turn like angry bees. Trace got a base on balls. Dean sacrificed. Ken also essayed to bunt and fouled himself out on strikes. Again Homans hit safely, but the crafty Keene, playing close, held Trace at third.
"We want the score!" Crash! crash! crash! went the bleachers.
With Raymond up and two out, the chance appeared slim, for he was not strong at batting. But he was great at trying, and this time, as luck would have it, he hit clean through second. Trace scored, and Homans, taking desperate risk, tried to reach home on the hit and failed. It was fast, exciting work, and the crowd waxed hotter and hotter.
For Place the lumbering Horton hit a twisting grounder to McCord, who batted it down with his mitt, jumped for it, turned and fell on the base, but too late to get his man. Griffith swung on Ken's straight ball and, quite by accident, blocked a little bunt out of reach of both Dean and Ken. It was a safe hit. Conroy stepped into Ken's fast ball, which ticked his shirt, and the umpire sent him down to first amid the vociferous objections of the Wayne rooters.
Three runners on bases and no one out. How the Place students bawled and beat their seats and kicked the floor!
Ken took a longer moment of deliberation. He showed no sign that the critical situation unnerved him. But his supple shoulders knit closer, and his long arm whipped harder as he delivered the ball.
Salisbury, a poor batter, apparently shut his eyes and swung with all his might. All present heard the ringing crack of the bat, but few saw the ball. Raymond leaped lengthwise to the left and flashed out his glove. There was another crack, of different sound. Then Raymond bounded over second base, kicking the bag, and with fiendish quickness sped the ball to first. Kern, the umpire, waved both arms wide. Then to the gasping audience the play became clear. Raymond had caught Salisbury's line hit in one hand, enabling him to make a triple play. A mighty shout shook the stands. Then strong, rhythmic, lusty cheers held the field in thrall for the moment, while the teams changed sides.
In Wayne's half of the sixth both Weir and McCord hit safely, but sharp fielding by Place held them on base.
Again the formidable head of Place's batting order was up. Keene lined to right field, a superb hit that looked good for a triple, but it had not the speed to get beyond the fleet sprinter.
Ken eyed the curly-haired Prince as if he was saying to himself: "I'm putting them over to-day. Hit if you can!"
Prince appeared to jump up and chop Ken's first pitch. The ball struck on fair ground and bounded very high, and was a safe hit. Prince took a long lead off first base, and three times slid back to the bag when Ken tried to catch him. The fast football man intended to steal; Ken saw it, Dean saw it; everybody saw it. Whereupon Ken delivered a swift ball outside of the plate. As Prince went down little Dean caught the pitch and got the ball away quick as lightning. Raymond caught it directly in the base-line, and then, from the impact of the sliding Prince, he went hurtling down. Runner, baseman, and ball disappeared in a cloud of dust. Kern ran nimbly down the field and waved Prince off.
But Raymond did not get up. The umpire called time. Worry Arthurs ran out, and he and Weir carried Raymond to the bench, where they bathed his head and wiped the blood from his face.
Presently Raymond opened his eyes.
"Wull, what struck me?" he asked.
"Oh, nothin'. There was a trolley loose in the field," replied Worry. "Can you get up? Why did you try to block that football rusher?"
Raymond shook his head.
"Did I tag the big fat devil?" he queried, earnestly. "Is he out?"
"You got him a mile," replied Worry.
After a few moments Raymond was able to stand upon his feet, but he was so shaky that Worry sent Schoonover to second.
Then the cheering leaders before the bleachers bellowed through their megaphones, and the students, rising to their feet, pealed out nine ringing "Waynes!" and added a roaring "Raymond!" to the end.
With two out, Kern called play.
Once again MacNeff was at bat. He had not made a foul in his two times up. He was at Ken's mercy, and the Wayne rooters were equally merciless.
"Ho! the slugging captain comes!"
"Get him a board!"
"Mac, that was a lucky stab of yours Wednesday! Hit one now!"
No spectator of that game missed Ken's fierce impetuosity when he faced MacNeff. He was as keen strung as a wire when he stood erect in the box, and when he got into motion he whirled far around, swung back bent, like a spring, and seemed to throw his whole body with the ball. One--two--three strikes that waved up in their velocity, and MacNeff for the third time went out.
Clatter and smash came from the bleachers, long stamping of feet, whistle and bang, for voices had become weak.
A hit, an error, a double play, another hit, a steal, and a forced out--these told Wayne's dogged, unsuccessful trial for the winning run.
But Worry Arthurs had curtly said to his pitcher: "Peg, cut loose!" and man after man for Place failed to do anything with his terrific speed. It was as if Ken had reserved himself wholly for the finish.
In the last of the eighth Dean hit one that caromed off Griffith's shin, and by hard running the little catcher made second. Ken sent him to third on a fielder's choice. It was then the run seemed forthcoming. Salisbury toiled in the box to coax the wary Homans. The Wayne captain waited until he got a ball to his liking. Martin trapped the hit and shot the ball home to catch Dean. It was another close decision, as Dean slid with the ball, but the umpire decided against the runner.
"Peg, lam them over now!" called Reddy Ray.
It was the first of the ninth, with the weak end of Place's hitting strength to face Ken. Griffith, Conroy, Salisbury went down before him as grass before a scythe. To every hitter Ken seemed to bring more effort, more relentless purpose to baffle them, more wonderful speed and control of his fast ball.
Through the stands and bleachers the word went freely that the game would go to ten innings, eleven innings, twelve innings, with the chances against the tiring Salisbury.
But on the Wayne bench there was a different order of conviction. Worry sparkled like flint. Homans, for once not phlegmatic, faced the coaching line at third. Raymond leaned pale and still against the bench. Ken was radiant.
Reddy Ray bent over the row of bats and singled out his own. His strong, freckled hands clenched the bat and whipped it through the air. His eyes were on fire when he looked at the stricken Raymond.
"Kel, something may happen yet before I get up to the plate," he said. "But if it doesn't--"
Then he strode out, knocked the dirt from his spikes, and stepped into position. Something about Reddy at that moment, or something potent in the unforeseen play to come, quieted the huge crowd.
Salisbury might have sensed it. He fussed with the ball and took a long while to pitch. Reddy's lithe form whirled around and seemed to get into running motion with the crack of the ball. Martin made a beautiful pick-up of the sharply bounding ball, but he might as well have saved himself the exertion. The championship sprinter beat the throw by yards.
Suddenly the whole Wayne contingent arose in a body, a tribute to what they expected of Reddy, and rent Grant Field with one tremendous outburst.
As it ceased a hoarse voice of stentorian volume rose and swelled on the air.
"Wayne wins! WATCH HIM RUN!"
It came from Murray, who loved his great sprinter.
Thrice Salisbury threw to MacNeff to hold Reddy close to first base, but he only wasted his strength. Then he turned toward the batter, and he had scarcely twitched a muscle in the beginning of his swing, when the keen sprinter was gone like a flash. His running gave the impression of something demon-like forced by the wind. He had covered the ground and was standing on the bag when Prince caught Conroy's throw.
Pandemonium broke out in the stands and bleachers, and a piercing, continuous scream. The sprinter could not be stopped. That was plain. He crouched low, watching Salisbury. Again and again the pitcher tried to keep Reddy near second base, but as soon as Martin or Prince returned the ball Reddy took his lead off the bag. He meant to run on the first pitch; he was on his toes. And the audience went wild, and the Place varsity showed a hurried, nervous strain. They yelled to Salisbury, but neither he nor any one else could have heard a thunderbolt in that moment.
Again Salisbury toed the rubber, and he hesitated, with his face turned toward second. But he had to pitch the ball, and as his elbow trembled the sprinter shot out of his tracks with the start that had made him famous. His red hair streaked in the wind like a waving flame. His beautiful stride swallowed distance. Then he sailed low and slid into the base as the ball struck Griffith's hands.
Reddy was on third now, with no one out, with two balls upon Weir and no strikes. In the fury of sound runner and batter exchanged a glance that was a sign.
The sprinter crouched low, watching Salisbury. For the third time, as the pitcher vibrated with the nervous force preceding his delivery, Reddy got his start. He was actually running before the ball left Salisbury's hand. Almost it seemed that with his marvellous fleetness he was beating the ball to the plate. But as the watchers choked in agony of suspense Weir bunted the ball, and Reddy Ray flashed across the plate with the winning run.
Then all that seemed cheering, din, and stamping roar deadened in an earth-shaking sound like an avalanche.
The students piled out of the bleachers in streams and poured on the field. An irresistible, hungry, clamoring flood, they submerged the players.
Up went Ken upon sturdy shoulders, and up went Reddy Ray and Kel and Homans and Dean--all the team, and last the red-faced Worry Arthurs. Then began the triumphant march about Grant Field and to the training-house.
It was a Wayne day, a day for the varsity, for Homans and Raymond, and for the great sprinter, but most of all it was Peg Ward's day.
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