``Fate has decreed more bad luck for Salisbury in Saturday's game with Bellville. It has leaked out that our rivals will come over strengthened by a `ringer,' no less than Yale's star pitcher, Wayne. We saw him shut Princeton out in June, in the last game of the college year, and we are not optimistic in our predictions as to what Salisbury can do with him. This appears a rather unfair procedure for Bellville to resort to. Why couldn't they come over with their regular team? They have won a game, and so have we; both games were close and brilliant; the deciding game has roused unusual interest. We are inclined to resent Bellville's methods as unsportsmanlike. All our players can do is to go into this game on Saturday and try the harder to win.''
Wayne laid down the Salisbury Gazette, with a little laugh of amusement, yet feeling a vague, disquieting sense of something akin to regret.
``Pretty decent of that chap not to roast me,'' he soliloquized.
Somewhere he had heard that Salisbury maintained an unsalaried team. It was notorious among college athletes that the Bellville Club paid for the services of distinguished players. And this in itself rather inclined Wayne to sympathize with Salisbury. He knew something of the struggles of a strictly amateur club to cope with its semi-professional rivals.
As he was sitting there, idly tipped back in a comfortable chair, dreaming over some of the baseball disasters he had survived before his college career, he saw a young man enter the lobby of the hotel, speak to the clerk, and then turn and come directly toward the window where Wayne was sitting.
``Are yon Mr. Wayne, the Yale pitcher?'' he asked eagerly. He was a fair-haired, clean-cut young fellow, and his voice rang pleasantly.
``Guilty,'' replied Wayne.
``My name's Huling. I'm captain of the Salisbury nine. Just learned you were in town and are going to pitch against us tomorrow. Won't you walk out into the grounds with me now? You might want to warm up a little.''
``Thank you, yes, I will. Guess I won't need my suit. I'll just limber up, and give my arm a good rub.''
It struck Wayne before they had walked far that Huling was an amiable and likable chap. As the captain of the Salisbury nine, he certainly had no reason to be agreeable to the Morristown ``ringer,'' even though Wayne did happen to be a famous Yale pitcher.
The field was an oval, green as an emerald, level as a billiard table and had no fences or stands to obstruct the open view of the surrounding wooded country. On each side of the diamond were rows of wooden benches, and at one end of the field stood a little clubhouse.
Wayne took off his coat, and tossed a ball for a while to an ambitious youngster, and then went into the clubhouse, where Huling introduced him to several of his players. After a good rubdown, Wayne thanked Huling for his courtesy, and started out, intending to go back to town.
``Why not stay to see us practice?'' asked the captain. ``We're not afraid you'll size up our weaknesses. As a matter of fact, we don't look forward to any hitting stunts tomorrow, eh, Burns? Burns, here, is our leading hitter, and he's been unusually noncommittal since he heard who was going to pitch for Bellville.''
``Well, I wouldn't give a whole lot for my prospects of a home run tomorrow,'' said Burns, with a laugh.
Wayne went outside, and found a seat in the shade. A number of urchins had trooped upon the green field, and carriages and motors were already in evidence. By the time the players came out of the dressing room, ready for practice, there was quite a little crowd in attendance.
Despite Wayne's hesitation, Huling insisted upon introducing him to friends, and finally hauled him up to a big touring car full of girls. Wayne, being a Yale pitcher, had seen several thousand pretty girls, but the group in that automobile fairly dazzled him. And the last one to whom Huling presented him--with the words: ``Dorothy, this is Mr. Wayne, the Yale pitcher, who is to play with Bellville tomorrow; Mr. Wayne, my sister''--was the girl he had known he would meet some day.
``Climb up, Mr. Wayne. We can make room,'' invited Miss Huling.
Wayne thought the awkwardness with which he found a seat beside her was unbecoming to a Yale senior. But, considering she was the girl he had been expecting to discover for years, his clumsiness bespoke the importance of the event. The merry laughter of the girls rang in his ears. Presently, a voice detached itself from the others, and came floating softly to him.
``Mr. Wayne, so you're going to wrest our laurels from us?'' asked Miss Huling.
``I don't know--I'm not infallible--I've been beaten.''
``When? Not this season?'' she inquired quickly, betraying a knowledge of his record that surprised and pleased him. ``Mr. Wayne, I was at the Polo Grounds on June fifteenth.''
Her white hand lightly touched the Princeton pin at her neck. Wayne roused suddenly out of his trance. The girl was a Princeton girl! The gleam of her golden hair, the flash of her blue eyes, became clear in sight.
``I'm very pleased to hear it,'' he replied.
``It was a great game, Mr. Wayne, and you may well be proud of your part in winning it. I shouldn't be surprised if you treated the Salisbury team to the same coat of whitewash. We girls are up in arms. Our boys stood a fair chance to win this game, but now there's a doubt. By the way, are you acquainted in Bellville?''
``No. I met Reed, the Bellville captain, in New York this week. He had already gotten an extra pitcher--another ringer--for this game, but he said he preferred me, if it could be arranged.''
While conversing, Wayne made note of the fact that the other girls studiously left him to Miss Huling. If the avoidance had not been so marked, he would never have thought of it.
``Mr. Wayne, if your word is not involved--will you change your mind and pitch tomorrow's game for us instead of Bellville?''
Quite amazed, Wayne turned squarely to look at Miss Huling. Instead of disarming his quick suspicion, her cool, sweet voice, and brave, blue eyes confirmed it. The charms of the captain's sister were to be used to win him away from the Bellville nine. He knew the trick; it had been played upon him before.
But never had any other such occasion given him a feeling of regret. This case was different. She was the girl. And she meant to flirt with him, to use her eyes for all they were worth to encompass the Waterloo of the rival team.
No, he had made a mistake, after all--she was not the real girl. Suddenly conscious of a little shock of pain, he dismissed that dream girl from his mind, and determined to meet Miss Huling half way in her game. He could not flirt as well as he could pitch; still, he was no novice.
``Well, Miss Huling, my word certainly is not involved. But as to pitching for Salisbury--that depends.''
``Upon what there is in it.''
``Mr. Wayne, you mean--money? Oh, I know. My brother Rex told me how you college men are paid big sums. Our association will not give a dollar, and, besides, my brother knows nothing of this. But we girls are heart and soul on winning this game. We'll----''
``Miss Huling, I didn't mean remuneration in sordid cash,'' interrupted Wayne, in a tone that heightened the color in her cheeks.
Wayne eyed her keenly with mingled emotions. Was that rose-leaf flush in her cheeks natural? Some girls could blush at will. Were the wistful eyes, the earnest lips, only shamming? It cost him some bitterness to decide that they were. Her beauty fascinated, while it hardened him. Eternally, the beauty of women meant the undoing of men, whether they played the simple, inconsequential game of baseball, or the great, absorbing, mutable game of life.
The shame of the situation for him was increasingly annoying, inasmuch as this lovely girl should stoop to flirtation with a stranger, and the same time draw him, allure him, despite the apparent insincerity.
``Miss Huling, I'll pitch your game for two things,'' he continued.
``Wear Yale blue in place of that orange-and- black Princeton pin.''
``I will.'' She said it with a shyness, a look in her eyes that made Wayne wince. What a perfect little actress! But there seemed just a chance that this was not deceit. For an instant he wavered, held back by subtle, finer intuition; then he beat down the mounting influence of truth in those dark-blue eyes, and spoke deliberately:
``The other thing is--if I win the game--a kiss.''
Dorothy Huling's face flamed scarlet. But this did not affect Wayne so deeply, though it showed him his mistake, as the darkening shadow of disappointment in her eyes. If she had been a flirt, she would have been prepared for rudeness. He began casting about in his mind for some apology, some mitigation of his offense; but as he was about to speak, the sudden fading of her color, leaving her pale, and the look in her proud, dark eyes disconcerted him out of utterance.
``Certainly, Mr. Wayne. I agree to your price if you win the game.''
But how immeasurable was the distance between the shy consent to wear Yale blue, and the pale, surprised agreement to his second proposal! Wayne experienced a strange sensation of personal loss.
While he endeavored to find his tongue, Miss Huling spoke to one of the boys standing near, and he started off on a run for the field. Presently Huling and the other players broke for the car, soon surrounding it in breathless anticipation.
``Wayne, is it straight? You'll pitch for us tomorrow?'' demanded the captain, with shining eyes.
``Surely I will. Bellville don't need me. They've got Mackay, of Georgetown,'' replied Wayne.
Accustomed as he was to being mobbed by enthusiastic students and admiring friends, Wayne could not but feel extreme embarrassment at the reception accorded him now. He felt that he was sailing under false colors. The boys mauled him, the girls fluttered about him with glad laughter. He had to tear himself away; and when he finally reached his hotel, he went to his room, with his mind in a tumult.
Wayne cursed himself roundly; then he fell into deep thought. He began to hope he could retrieve the blunder. He would win the game; he would explain to her the truth; he would ask for an opportunity to prove he was worthy of her friendship; he would not mention the kiss. This last thought called up the soft curve of her red lips and that it was possible for him to kiss her made the temptation strong.
His sleep that night was not peaceful and dreamless. He awakened late, had breakfast sent to his room, and then took a long walk out into the country. After lunch he dodged the crowd in the hotel lobby, and hurried upstairs, where he put on his baseball suit. The first person he met upon going down was Reed, the Bellville man.
``What's this I hear, Wayne, about your pitching for Salisbury today? I got your telegram.''
``Straight goods,'' replied Wayne.
``But I thought you intended to pitch for us?''
``I didn't promise, did I?''
``No. Still, it looks fishy to me.''
``You've got Mackay, haven't you?''
``Yes. The truth is, I intended to use you both.''
``Well, I'll try to win for Salisbury. Hope there's no hard feeling.''
``Not at all. Only if I didn't have the Georgetown crack, I'd yell murder. As it is, we'll trim Salisbury anyway.''
``Maybe,'' answered Wayne, laughing. ``It's a hot day, and my arm feels good.''
When Wayne reached the ball grounds, he thought he had never seen a more inspiring sight. The bright green oval was surrounded by a glittering mass of white and blue and black. Out along the foul lines were carriages, motors, and tally-hos, brilliant with waving fans and flags. Over the field murmured the low hum of many voices.
``Here you are!'' cried Huling, making a grab for Wayne. ``Where were you this morning? We couldn't find you. Come! We've got a minute before the practice whistle blows, and I promised to exhibit you.''
He hustled Wayne down the first-base line, past the cheering crowd, out among the motors, to the same touring car that he remembered. A bevy of white-gowned girls rose like a covey of ptarmigans, and whirled flags of maroon and gray.
Dorothy Huling wore a bow of Yale blue upon her breast, and Wayne saw it and her face through a blur.
``Hurry, girls; get it over. We've got to practice,'' said the captain.
In the merry melee some one tied a knot of ribbon upon Wayne. Who it was he did not know; he saw only the averted face of Dorothy Huling. And as he returned to the field with a dull pang, he determined he would make her indifference disappear with the gladness of a victory for her team.
The practice was short, but long enough for Wayne to locate the glaring weakness of Salisbury at shortstop and third base. In fact, most of the players of his team showed rather poor form; they were overstrained, and plainly lacked experience necessary for steadiness in an important game.
Burns, the catcher, however, gave Wayne confidence. He was a short, sturdy youngster, with all the earmarks of a coming star. Huling, the captain, handled himself well at first base. The Bellville players were more matured, and some of them were former college cracks. Wayne saw that he had his work cut out for him.
The whistle blew. The Bellville team trotted to their position in the field; the umpire called play, and tossed a ball to Mackay, the long, lean Georgetown pitcher.
Wells, the first batter, fouled out; Stamford hit an easy bounce to the pitcher, and Clews put up a little Texas leaguer--all going out, one, two, three, on three pitched balls.
The teams changed from bat to field. Wayne faced the plate amid vociferous cheering. He felt that he could beat this team even without good support. He was in the finest condition, and his arm had been resting for ten days. He knew that if he had control of his high inshoot, these Bellville players would feel the whiz of some speed under their chins.
He struck Moore out, retired Reed on a measly fly, and made Clark hit a weak grounder to second; and he walked in to the bench assured of the outcome. On some days he had poor control; on others his drop ball refused to work properly; but, as luck would have it, he had never had greater speed or accuracy, or a more bewildering fast curve than on this day, when he meant to win a game for a girl.
``Boys, I've got everything,'' he said to his fellow-players, calling them around him. ``A couple of runs will win for us. Now, listen, I know Mackay. He hasn't any speed, or much of a curve. All he's got is a teasing slow ball and a foxy head. Don't be too anxious to hit. Make him put 'em over.''
But the Salisbury players were not proof against the tempting slow balls that Mackay delivered. They hit at wide curves far off the plate and when they did connect with the ball it was only to send an easy chance to the infielders.
The game seesawed along, inning after inning; it was a pitcher's battle that looked as if the first run scored would win the game. Mackay toyed with the Salisbury boys; it was his pleasure to toss up twisting, floating balls that could scarcely be hit out of the diamond. Wayne had the Bellville players utterly at his mercy; he mixed up his high jump and fast drop so cleverly, with his sweeping out-curve, that his opponents were unable to gauge his delivery at all.
In the first of the seventh, Barr for Bellville hit a ball which the third baseman should have fielded. But he fumbled. The second batter sent a fly to shortstop, who muffed it. The third hitter reached his base on another error by an infielder. Here the bases were crowded, and the situation had become critical all in a moment. Wayne believed the infield would go to pieces, and lose the game, then and there, if another hit went to short or third.
``Steady up, boys,'' called Wayne, and beckoned for his catcher.
``Burns, it's up to you and me,'' he said, in a low tone. ``I've got to fan the rest of these hitters. You're doing splendidly. Now, watch close for my drop. Be ready to go down on your knees. When I let myself out, the ball generally hits the ground just back of the plate.''
``Speed 'em over!'' said Burns, his sweaty face grim and determined. ``I'll get in front of 'em.''
The head of the batting list was up for Bellville, and the whole Bellville contingent on the side lines rose and yelled and cheered.
Moore was a left handed hitter, who choked his bat up short, and poked at the ball. He was a good bunter, and swift on his feet. Wayne had taken his measure, as he had that of the other players, earlier in the game; and he knew it was good pitching to keep the ball in close to Moore's hands, so that if he did hit it, the chances were it would not go safe.
Summoning all his strength, Wayne took his long swing and shot the ball over the inside corner with terrific speed.
Wayne knew it would not do to waste any balls if he wished to maintain that speed, so he put the second one in the same place. Moore struck too late.
Then Burns signed for the last drop. Wayne delivered it with trepidation, for it was a hard curve to handle. Moore fell all over himself trying to hit it. Little Burns dropped to his knees to block the vicious curve. It struck the ground, and, glancing, boomed deep on the breast protector.
How the Salisbury supporters roared their approval! One man out--the bases full--with Reed, the slugging captain, at bat!
If Reed had a weakness, Wayne had not discovered it yet, although Reed had not hit safely. The captain stood somewhat back from the plate, a fact that induced Wayne to try him with the speedy outcurve. Reed lunged with a powerful swing, pulling away from the plate, and he missed the curve by a foot.
Wayne did not need to know any more. Reed had made his reputation slugging straight balls from heedless pitchers. He chopped the air twice more, and flung his bat savagely to the ground.
``Two out--play the hitter!'' called Wayne to his team.
Clark, the third man up, was the surest batter on the Bellville team. He looked dangerous. He had made the only hit so far to the credit of his team. Wayne tried to work him on a high, fast ball close in. Clark swung freely and cracked a ripping liner to left. Half the crowd roared, and then groaned, for the beautiful hit went foul by several yards. Wayne wisely decided to risk all on his fast drop. Clark missed the first, fouled the second.
Then he waited. He cooly let one, two, three of the fast drops go by without attempting to hit them. Burns valiantly got his body in front of them. These balls were all over the plate, but too low to be called strikes. With two strikes, and three balls, and the bases full, Clark had the advantage.
Tight as the place was, Wayne did not flinch. The game depended practically upon the next ball delivered. Wayne craftily and daringly decided to use another fast drop, for of all his assortment that would be the one least expected by Clark. But it must be started higher, so that in case Clark made no effort to swing, it would still be a strike.
Gripping the ball with a clinched hand, Wayne swung sharply, and drove it home with the limit of his power. It sped like a bullet, waist high, and just before reaching the plate darted downward, as if it had glanced on an invisible barrier.
Clark was fooled completely and struck futilely. But the ball caromed from the hard ground, hit Burns with a resounding thud, and bounced away. Clark broke for first, and Moore dashed for home. Like a tiger the little catcher pounced upon the ball, and, leaping back into line, blocked the sliding Moore three feet from the plate.
Pandemonium burst loose among the Salisbury adherents. The men bawled, the women screamed, the boys shrieked, and all waved their hats and flags, and jumped up and down, and manifested symptoms of baseball insanity.
In the first of the eighth inning, Mackay sailed up the balls like balloons, and disposed of three batters on the same old weak hits to his clever fielders. In the last of the eighth, Wayne struck out three more Bellville players.
``Burns, you're up,'' said Wayne, who, in his earnestness to win, kept cheering his comrades. ``Do something. Get your base any way you can. Get in front of one. We must score this inning.''
Faithful, battered Burns cunningly imposed his hip over the plate and received another bruise in the interests of his team. The opposing players furiously stormed at the umpire for giving him his base, but Burns' trick went through. Burnett bunted skilfully, sending Burns to second. Cole hit a fly to center. Then Huling singled between short and third.
It became necessary for the umpire to delay the game while he put the madly leaping boys back off the coaching lines. The shrill, hilarious cheering gradually died out, and the field settled into a forced quiet.
Wayne hurried up to the plate and took his position. He had always been a timely hitter, and he gritted his teeth in his resolve to settle this game. Mackay whirled his long arm, wheeled, took his long stride, and pitched a slow, tantalizing ball that seemed never to get anywhere. But Wayne waited, timed it perfectly, and met it squarely.
The ball flew safely over short, and but for a fine sprint and stop by the left fielder, would have resulted in a triple, possibly a home run. As it was, Burns and Huling scored; and Wayne, by a slide, reached second base. When he arose and saw the disorderly riot, and heard the noise of that well-dressed audience, he had a moment of exultation. Then Wells flew out to center ending the chances for more runs.
As Wayne received the ball in the pitcher's box, he paused and looked out across the field toward a white-crowned motor car, and he caught a gleam of Dorothy Huling's golden hair, and wondered if she were glad.
For nothing short of the miraculous could snatch this game from him now. Burns had withstood a severe pounding, but he would last out the inning, and Wayne did not take into account the rest of the team. He opened up with no slackening of his terrific speed, and he struck out the three remaining batters on eleven pitched balls. Then in the rising din he ran for Burns and gave him a mighty hug.
``You made the gamest stand of any catcher I ever pitched to,'' he said warmly.
Burns looked at his quivering, puffed, and bleeding hands, and smiled as if to say that this was praise to remember, and reward enough. Then the crowd swooped down on them, and they were swallowed up in the clamor and surge of victory. When Wayne got out of the thick and press of it, he made a bee line for his hotel, and by running a gauntlet managed to escape.
Resting, dressing, and dining were matters which he went through mechanically, with his mind ever on one thing. Later, he found a dark corner of the porch and sat there waiting, thinking. There was to be a dance given in honor of the team that evening at the hotel. He watched the boys and girls pass up the steps. When the music commenced, he arose and went into the hall. It was bright with white gowns, and gay with movement.
``There he is. Grab him, somebody,'' yelled Huling.
``Do something for me, quick,'' implored Wayne of the captain, as he saw the young people wave toward him.
``Salisbury is yours tonight,'' replied Huling
``Ask your sister to save me one dance.''
Then he gave himself up. He took his meed of praise and flattery, and he withstood the battery of arch eyes modestly, as became the winner of many fields. But even the reception after the Princeton game paled in comparison with this impromptu dance.
She was here. Always it seemed, while he listened or talked or danced, his eyes were drawn to a slender, graceful form, and a fair face crowned with golden hair. Then he was making his way to where she stood near one of the open windows.
He never knew what he said to her, nor what reply she made, but she put her arm in his, and presently they were gliding over the polished floor. To Wayne the dance was a dream. He led her through the hall and out upon the balcony, where composure strangely came to him.
``Mr. Wayne, I have to thank you for saving the day for us. You pitched magnificently.''
``I would have broken my arm to win that game,'' burst out Wayne. ``Miss Huling, I made a blunder yesterday. I thought there was a conspiracy to persuade me to throw down Bellville. I've known of such things, and I resented it. You understand what I thought. I humbly offer my apologies, and beg that you forget the rude obligation I forced upon you.''
How cold she was! How unattainable in that moment! He caught his breath, and rushed on.
``Your brother and the management of the club have asked me to pitch for Salisbury the remainder of the season. I shall be happy to--if----''
``If what?'' She was all alive now, flushing warmly, dark eyes alight, the girl of his dreams.
``If you will forgive me--if you will let me be your friend--if--Miss Huling, you will again wear that bit of Yale blue.''
``If, Mr. Wayne, you had very sharp eyes you would have noticed that I still wear it!''