One Damsel in Distress
One Damsel in Distress
THIS is the first baseball novelette of the season. Baseball fans, we know, will eat it up; and the others—are there any others in these “diamond-studded” United States? Anyway, they'll know why the fans are so wild about it. Think you would like to be Red Williams?—The Editor.
Co-author with J. U. Giesy of “The Reddest Age,” “The Matrimoniac,” etc.
To “Williams” or Not?
LOOK me over carefully and guess what I am.
I'm not an advertisement for the House of Horkheimer at all. I'm a hero!
I'm kind of surprised myself; in fact the whole thing was accidental; but when a girl with two redly kissable lips, and a shape like the Venus de Milo, and a tear hanging pendent in each eye—well, when a girl like that gives a fellow the once over, and tells him that if she isn't saved promptly and at once, she, the said Venus, will forever be past the point of foiling the villain; when she does that it's enough to make a guy do things like you read of in mythology.
As I say, it was all a series of accidents with me as the accidentee. Oh! I know that things in stories never happen by accident or coincidence, but this isn't fiction—it's straight goods. Believe me, it took a half a dozen accidents to make a hero out of me, though, of course, until right recently I wouldn't admit it in public print.
There were several reasons. In the first place, no man who has had brains enough to hang around a university for four years and still fool a sour-orange faculty into handing him a sheepskin which designates him a B.A., and other Latin things, likes to admit that he's had his pockets picked by an ordinary dip.
He was an innocent-looking chap. Hereafter I'm going to steer clear of that kind. If a guy looking like a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and Pancho Villa sits down beside me and curses in seven different languages, I'll trust him with my diamond scarf-pin. But the next pink-cheeked lad with a mama's-boy look in his wide-open blue eyes that asks me if this is the train he's supposed to be on, is liable to be stepped on right hard. If he isn't too big.
He was clever though. When the conductor came around to collect another section of my six-foot transcontinental ticket I felt glad that my clothes had been buttoned on tightly. Else I'd probably have been Mr. September Morn.
I'm asking you now, do I look like a lad who would try to beat the railroad out of a measly, miserable ride? Certainly not. Then why should that conductor have doubted my story? He did, though, and he gave me the option of paying my fare or getting off at the next water-tank.
I thought it over a while and decided I'd get off. My assets at that particular minute consisted of a Columbian half-dollar which had long done duty as a pocket-piece—and which had a hole in it. The conductor had a nice face, but he said duty was duty, and just then his duty was to put me off the train.
I tried to argue with him—I told him that the train was going on to Memphis anyway, and that my being on board didn't make it any heavier or use up any more coal—but he couldn't see it my way.
He pulled the little cord overhead, the engineer whistled to show that he was in cahoots with the other uniformed banditti on the train, and after awhile we stopped at what, to judge by a street surrounded on both sides by brick stores, looked like a regular town. The conductor let me take my suit-case with me, and when I was getting off, advised me not to try that game again.
“I won't,” I said fervidly. “The next angel-child that asks me for a stick of chewing-gum is going to think Halley's comet has paid a return visit.”
Elmville was the name tacked on the end of the yellow depot I was left at, and I guess it must have been a right unusual thing for a train to hesitate there long enough to drop a passenger, because I hadn't begun to get my bearings before the little lady I've already remarked on sailed up to me, grabbed my hand, and allowed she was plumb tickled to death that I'd arrived in time.
“I was so afraid you'd miss connection in Birmingham,” she bubbled.
“Is that a fact? I didn't, though; and here I am.”
“It's such a relief to see you,” she says. “How's your arm?”
“Very well, I thank you. How's yours?”
She threw back her head and laughed, and I saw I'd gotten into the humorist class. Then she turns to the guy who's been standing in her wake and nods him and me together.
“This is Mr. Walters,” she explained. “Mr. Walters—Mr. Williams.”
“Pleased to meet you,” gurgled Walters. I nodded ditto and looked him over.
Right at the jump I didn't cotton to this Walters chap much. His eyes were too close-set, and his chin got to a point about two inches before nature should have intended. He seemed right pleased to meet me.
“We got your Atlanta wire,” he says, “and we were afraid the train would get into Birmingham too late for you to catch the limited. If it had you'd have gotten in on the local just an hour before the game. You say your arm's in good trim?”
“Best ever. What's the dope on this game?”
“We couldn't explain in detail over the wires,” pipes up the girl, “but the pennant and the fortunes of the club depend on this afternoon's game. It's the last of the season, and if you don't win it for us—”
Yep! You're right the first time. They'd got me mixed up with a guy who would have caught the same train if he'd been able to, and who was to save the game for the home team. My Gawd! it brought back all my dime-novel days when I thought Christy Mathewson was the greatest pitcher in the world except Frank Merriwell.
Of course if I'd been a born hero I'd have nobly told the dame that it was all a mistake, and that my name was James Heston, with the privilege of a B.A. after it, and the closest I ever came to saving a game for any team was when I dropped a long fly in the ninth inning with the score one in our favor and the bases full and saved the game for the other team.
That play was the principal reason I didn't win my initial at college, and also why my classmates smaller than I rather hesitate to say anything in my presence about Ty Cobb or any other great outfielder. Baseball is a sore spot with me, and up to that minute I thought I'd retired forever from the lime-light of the diamond. But fate, you know, won't let a poor sucker alone.
Anyway, after she'd introduced herself as Ethel Dale, and repeated the statement that I had the good Samaritan backed off the map when it came to being the right guy in the right place at the right time, I just didn't have the heart to break the news brutally. Besides, I had one plugged four-bit piece in my pocket, and a remembrance that I'd expected to breakfast on the buffet-car.
We hung around awhile—just long enough for me to see that whoever the real Mr. Williams was, he was due for a right warm welcome in that burg—and then this Walters fish excused himself with the remark that he had to trot along and see how much money had been taken in on the advance ticket sale.
“You'll be at the Elm Inn, won't you?” he asked me.
“You're the judge,” I came back at him. “Will I?”
“Yes. It's the only decent hotel in town. I'll be trotting along now.”
“Arthur,” called the girl. “Remember!”
His face kind of clouded up at that.
“Oh! don't worry, Ethel; I won't. But I tell you it was our only chance to pull the club out of the hole.”
He moseyed along down the street with Ethel and me pacing along slowly and surely in his wake.
It was my cue all right, all right, but I was shy of the job. Believe me, kid, if there's anything harder in this world than to explain to a pretty woman that you are not the hero you think she thinks you are, I haven't run across it. I made about three false starts, and then, finally, when she left me a spot where I had to say something, I blurted it out.
“There's an awful mistake here, Miss Dale,” I said. “My name is not Williams.”
She smiled brightly at that.
“Of course it's not,” she said. “Everybody knows that.”
“It's Heston; Jimmy Heston,” I blurted desperately. It didn't feeze her.
“Is it? Art Walters had charge of all the arrangements. We'll pay you after the game. You see, we didn't want them to know we were ringing in a class A pitcher on them so we decided we'd use the name Williams. Oh! don't look at me that way; it's fair enough. They've rung in four high-class players under assumed names, one of them a corking good pitcher, and we have to fight fire with fire, you know. If Elmville loses this afternoon I'm ruined!”
Say, when she said that word I got a picture of Verdun. I saw that the hardest part of my job still lay ahead.
“I still say it's a mistake,” I repeated. “I never pitched a game of ball in my life—after I put on long pants.”
Understanding One Another.
SHE stopped in her tracks, swung around to face me, and her baby-blue eyes popped open enough to let those two ever-ready tears look like a pair of twin diamonds.
“Never pitched a game—” she quavered. “Then you're not—”
“I'm Jimmy Heston: Princeton '16, traveling West for experience. And I'm getting it, too. A baby-faced blond of the masculine gender lifted my wallet containing diploma, letters of introduction, coin of the realm, and ticket. The conductor allowed the Southern wasn't running on charity or for charity. He stopped the train at this town and invited me to part company with him and his. I accepted the invitation because he had the squarest jaw I ever saw outside the prize ring. I didn't have the heart to tell you right off, because you and this Walters lad seemed right happy to see the man you thought I was. Aw! say—don't cry, not here, anyway. Let's go somewhere more secluded.”
“I—I—c-c-c-can't hel-l-lup it,” she sobbed, biting her lower lip so the tears wouldn't become too public. “I—I—I'm ruined!”
“I'm awful sorry; honest I am. I'm here, broke, down and out, ready for anything. Can't I help?”
“I don't see how. The local that the real Williams will have to come on is always a couple of hours late. If it came in on time to-day it would be a miracle—and miracles don't happen.”
“Oh! yes indeed they do.”
“What do you mean?”
“My meeting you.” There was a strained silence for a few minutes. “Now listen here, Miss Dale, I'm no pitcher, but maybe if you can find yourself willing to trust me and you'll show me the wood-pile that has the nigger in it, I might be able to give you some good advice.”
“A-a-advice isn't what I n-n-need,” she said, getting all sobby again. “I n-n-need a p-p-pitcher.”
“Listen here,” I insisted sternly. “I judge that you do need some advice, and even if my credentials have been lost, they're none the less O. K. I gather that you were counting on this Williams ringer to pull the team to a pennant. He hasn't shown up. He'll probably sizzle in on the local. Maybe, if you're willing to trust me I might be able to work things so they'll delay the game until the real pitcher gets here.”
“Oh!” The tears dropped ker-splash, and she smiled so sunnily that I looked around. “I'm so much obliged!”
That hit me where I live; I couldn't quite make it.
“Saving the situation so splendidly.”
“But—but—Miss Dale, I'm afraid I haven't saved any situation—yet.”
“You said you would, so that makes it all right.”
Right there was where I started being a hero. Do you blame me? No, certainly not. If there had been any way of getting out of it I'd have done it, but there wasn't. Just you wait until a pink-cheeked, blue-eyed, perfect thirty-four tells you that you can take the earth to the side of a hill and roll it down like a bowling-ball—wait until that happens, I say, and you'll make old Atlas look like a selling-plater when it comes to trying.
Why, I'd have eaten ten-penny nails out of a German submarine for that little lady along about then, though just at that time I wasn't wise to the size of the job I'd tackled.
Believe me, the chap who first said that ignorance was bliss spoke a little more than a mouthful. He was wise and then a few. Why, if I'd had the faintest conception of what I was getting myself into I'd have tied a percussion cap to the seat of my pants and sat down on a barrel of gunpowder. Honest; it would have been shorter and a whole heap safer.
“What time does the local get in, Miss Dale?”
“It's due at two o'clock. It usually gets in about four.”
“And the hour for the game?”
“H-m! No chance of getting a postponement until to-morrow?”
“No,” sadly. “They granted us a three-day postponement, thanks to Art Walters. And this is the third day. You see, the two teams were tied at the end of the pennant race, and they've been playing a seven-game series to decide it. Each team has won three games, and now they've pulled in three awful ringers on us, and—we—we—we're beaten.”
Deep down in my heart I was inclined to agree with the lady, but it's my motto to cheer up other folks all I can when it don't cost anything but a little wind, so I started in telling her that while I wasn't any Walter Johnson, I did know a thing or two about the great national pastime.
“And you?” I wound up. “What's your interest in this game? Civic pride?”
Those morning-glories of hers widened maddeningly.
“Not entirely. Oh! of course, not entirely that. You see, I own the club and the franchise.”
Now listen; if you saw a two-by-twice Pomeranian walking the streets, and a bull-necked bruiser with two cauliflower ears and three busted knuckles waltzed up to you and allowed that it was his li'l tootsie-wootsie, you'd be inclined to be surprised, wouldn't you? Sure. So would I.
But the surprise I'd get in a case of that kind wouldn't run one-two-twenty with the shock her words handed me. I guess I must have showed it in this face that was washed on me when they told papa it was a boy, and that mother and child were doing well.
“What's funny about that?” she piped plaintively. “I thought everybody knew I owned the Tigers.”
“N-no. I didn't. Is—is—it an asset?”
I guess her dad must have been a scrapper—or maybe her mother, because her little jaw squared all of a sudden and the words slipped out from between clenched teeth with a sound like a drop of water that's gone wrong and happened onto a hot stove-lid.
“It's a liability!”
“M-m-h-m! And you want to pull the club through to victory as a matter of pride?”
“Pride? Pride? Listen here, Mr.—Mr—”
“Heston. Jimmy Heston.”
“Mr. Heston. I'm an orphan. And about all my folks left me was the family photographs and the ball club. And. the club—franchise, grounds, players' contracts and uniforms, are mortgaged.”
“No, it's tender, so far. The tough part is still to come. We had a pretty good year, all things considered. Art Walters is treasurer of the club, and Art has always been a friend of mine—”
A little bit of pink in a general southerly direction from those sky-blue eyes.
“He'd like to look more so, I'm afraid. Anyway, he knows baseball and he's had the handling of all the money. Some time ago he showed me the books and said that while we had a nice little balance in the bank it wasn't going to be enough to pay off any of the principal sum on the mortgage which covers the club.”
“I see.” It was a foolish thing to say but she stopped and looked at me right expectantly and I came across with the first words that popped into my head. It was true too. I did see—and I kept on seeing the prettiest girl I ever expect to see. (And I hope she sees this!)
“'It's this way,' Art told me. 'We've got to pay off that mortgage. We'll have a fat surplus in hand when we're half through the post-season series with the Norvel White Sox—if they happen to tie up with us, as they ought to do seeing that they're winding up the season with the Canaries and we're idle. If we could double that surplus we'd be all to the good and have a little net profit to divide among the stockholders.'
“I'm the stockholders, you see: it's all mine, and it's the only thing I have in the world except poor relations.
“'Listen, Art,' I said. 'It's all very well to talk about doubling capital, but it isn't done outside of story books.'
“'I'll bet I could do it,” he said. 'And it ought to be done.'
“'Don't be foolish, Art. You see that the park is jammed for the series and that we make every cent possible, and I'll see that the salaries are paid and the creditors satisfied.'
“Now, honestly, Mr. Heston, that was every word that was said between us on the subject. When the series started we won the first two games. During a Sunday lay-off the Sox got in touch with some big league players and ran them in on us. They took three of the next four games, making the series three all. Then Art came to me looking terribly troubled. He said—he said—” it began to look like she was going to have the weeps again, but she controlled herself with an effort. “Oh! it's too terrible to repeat in detail. Anyway, after we had won the first game he'd found some one who bet with him—and he bet—every cent that was in the club treasury—bet all that money that we would win!”
“Go-o-d night! And then?”
“I grew desperate. I made Art wire off for a fine pitcher, because the Sox are weak hitters and I knew a fine pitcher could hold 'em and our boys are fighting mad. You don't know how wild this town is about baseball: it's something terrific. He finally got in touch with this man Williams, and Williams said he'd come down for a hundred and fifty dollars and expenses—”
“Say! How much did this Artie-boy bet?”
“Almost three thousand dollars,” she said in a hushed voice. “He don't—what do you call it?—pike!”
I whistled softly.
“No! He don't seem to care a three-cent darn what he does with other folks' money, does he?”
“He had the good of the club at heart,” she flashed loyally: that loyalty stuff's a great thing—for the guy on the receiving end. “He would be broken hearted if the team lost.”
“Sure—but he wouldn't be broke!”
“I don't see—”
“Neither do I, Miss Dale. And it begins to look to me that you're in a rather serious fix. You say they have three ringers? Three corking good players?”
“Four. The three new ones have come in since the series started. Two of 'em make a brand new battery. They won two of the games from us.”
“And aside from these ringers how do the two teams shape up?”
“We were slightly better. They outclass us now. But if only Mr. Williams can get here in time—”
“Whoa, there! This is time for ten-second thinking, not weeping. We've just simply got to delay that game until tomorrow.”
With that she clapped her hands like I'd really done something.
“Yes, I forgot that. We must. He will be here then and we'll win and—Her face clouded up. “But how?” she asked suddenly.
“H-m! Where there's a will—say, have you got insurance on the grounds—the stands?”
“Yes. But what—”
“We might set fire to 'em.”
“That's arson,” she said sternly, “and in this State they punish arson with death.”
“Oh! I guess that lets that out.”
“Yes,”—ruefully—“I guess it does. What else can you suggest?”
I scratched my head. To say I was up against a tough proposition is stating it mildly. It was a thousand times worse than tough. But with that baby doll expecting me to do things for her—
I made up my mind I'd make a great shake at something and then fade away right sudden if I didn't make good. Lordy, I knew if I flivvered I'd never have the nerve to face those innocent blue eyes of her again. Ball team owner! Say, she should have been posing for Haskell Coffin in a flower garden, that's what she was best suited for.
But there wasn't any use trying to think connectedly with her looking at me, because somehow I couldn't seriously think that there was such a thing as trouble in the world. So I made a getaway and headed for the Elm Inn, with the parting injunction that everybody in Elmville, including Art Walters, must continue to believe that I was Red Williams, the expected pitcher.
“There are two reasons for that,” I said, “the principal one is that if the Norvel team learns that Red hasn't arrived they wouldn't consent to a postponement of the game for love or money. And if the local lads know that I'm not Williams their nerve will go to pieces. They 'll lose the little chance for the game that they still have. Because, Miss Dale, baseball is baseball; and there's no telling when a worm is going to turn and bite the hand that feeds him. There's always a possibility—not a probability, mind you—that die weaker team will have a batting rally and win, and we've got to play this game straight across the board.”
I LEFT her after she pointed out the house where she lived with two maiden aunts, and hiked to the Elm Inn. I wanted to mosey around a bit and get the lay of the land. I also wanted to swap chin-music with this Walters jasper again. Under ordinary circumstances I guess he wouldn't have gotten on my nerves, but it was about as plain to me as a new dollar that he wouldn't mind a certain person by the name of Dale changing over to the Walters list in the town directory.
Not that Ethel would have considered it under normal circumstances, but then the town was awfully small and two people living there had a chance for a heap of this propinquity stuff.
Naa! I wasn't falling in love with Ethel Dale. Why I hadn't known her but an hour and—say! She is a pippin, though!
The Elm Inn isn't much to look at unless you're interested in antiques. I guess there isn't a southern town of under 15,000 without the twin sister to the inn: a two-story frame structure, once red but now turned a weather-beaten, dirty brown; two long verandas spanning the front, three town loafers sitting in an old fashioned swing on the side of the lower veranda, two shade trees in front and the odor of fried chicken coming from the mysterious realms in the rear.
I'm not much on antiques or art, but I'm thunder on fried chicken. Besides, as I mentioned, nothing had slipped inside of me to gratify a regular bachelor of arts appetite that morning and I was ready to go to any lengths for a square meal. But it was easy: cinch.
I registered as Williams. Then I asked for a room with bath.
“Bath with all rooms,” returned the portly lady who was on minute duty at the desk where a blank book did service as a register.
“Huh?” That was a new one on me. The hotel gave me the impression that it had been built before Fort Sumter was fired on and in those days people had to go some for a bath.
“Yes,” she repeated sternly. “Guests are welcome to bathe at any time. The bathroom's at the end of the hall, right by the corner of the back piazza.”
Having digested that I took another soul-satisfying whiff of the fried chicken.
“Too late for breakfast?” I inquired mildly.
She took a glance at the register, and then she beamed all over.
“Oh! you're the Mr. Williams who's come to win for us this afternoon?”
I blushingly admitted that I was the guy in question. She was all action in about a half-second.
“Just you make yourself right to home, Mr. Williams. I'll fix you up the finest meal you ever tasted in about one shake of a lamb's tail. Have a seat; have a seat. Just a second now.”
It was worth waiting for: four waffles that seemed to be all crust and crispness, served with fresh country butter and maple sirup; fried chicken, biscuits that would have melted in my mouth if I'd given them time, and last of all a half of a cantaloup that would have put a Kassaba to the blush.
“I fixed the breakfast myself,” beamed the landlady when I'd finished the last piece of close-to-the-rind cantaloup. “I even picked out the mushmelon. And you must pay me back this afternoon by beating that horrid Norvel team.”
It was up to me to say something.
“You understand baseball, ma'am?”
“Oh! no indeed, but I always go to the games. Everybody does, and I've already told lots of people that you were going to win for us.”
I began to have a suspicion that if Norvel won that afternoon I'd better think about making myself a bit scarce. Anyway I got to my room, sat down in a once-easy chair to think things over and presto! comes a knock at my door.
When I heard that knock I knew something unusual was going to happen. How? I don't know—but I knew it. It was a furtive knock, and the man who came into the room when I gave him the word was furtive and slinking.
He was a little fellow: he wasn't big enough to make a good morning meal for a husky man. He wore a gray cheviot suit, a gray hat, gray socks and a pair of shiny, black shoes. He slunk into the room, closed the door very softly and looked around.
He hissed the word like the good old villain in melodrama. I put my feet to the floor and stood on 'em.
“Yours truly,” I said.
“Here it is,” says he, shoving an envelope in my hands. It was addressed to George Williams.
“Much obliged,” I remarked, meaning that I thanked him for telling me my first name. Then I started to tear open the flap. Man! you'd have thought there was an infernal machine inside that envelope by the way he leaped across the floor and grabbed my arm.
“Not now!” he whispered. “Wait until I get out of the room.”
“You're crazy!” I remarked, opening the envelope. And inside were four nice, new fifty-dollar bills: two hundred dollars avoirdutroy. “Is it real?” I asked inanely.
The little shrimp's face was flushed a brick-red.
“Of course it's real. You get another hundred when you've kept your agreement.”
His face showed annoyance at my dense ignorance. It would have showed a heap more annoyance if he'd known how ignorant I really was. But I'd begun to smell a mice and I was playing things close to the chest.
“Of course. Didn't you get that wire?”
“Sure,” I lied happily.
“Well—we just don't want you to make it too raw. We've bet heavily on this game and the minute the Norvel team has won you get that extra hundred—in cash.”
Norvel! And they thought I was Williams! I didn't need opera glasses to get wise then—in some way the deal had been framed up and the Norvel bunch had bought out Red Williams for three hundred dollars!
Believe me, I wanted to hand it to the Norvel crowd for playing their little game absolutely and utterly safe.
Elmville hires a star pitcher to win the deciding game, Norvel discovers who it is and buys him out. Lordy! I stopped wondering then why it was that Norvel had consented to postpone the game until the mound wonder had arrived—it was so they couldn't lose!
Pickle! You bet there was and that little pink-cheeked lassie was in it deep. It didn't matter now whether the local came in on time or not. The game was gone! Man alive! it was fierce. That poor little doll robbed of her home and assets. It was just simply up to some big strong man with a B. A. degree to carry her off and marry her. She was too young and tender to look after herself and more mundane affairs.
“Much obliged,” I said again. “I'll see that you get your money's worth. But there 'll be no crude stuff, of course. It's got to seem close.”
“Sure,” he agreed in that nervous, jumpy way of his. “Sure. Sure. But, of course—take no chances.”
“No—I'll take no chances. It's a sure thing!” And I spoke a mouthful that time, believe me.
The undersized boob slipped out of the door and pat-patted down the hall, and hardly had he gone before a bell-hop, who three times a day was a dining room waiter, rapped on the door to say that there was a telephone call for me in the office down-stairs.
It was Ethel, and her voice was all quavery with excitement and happiness.
“Oh! Mr. Heston: guess what?”
“But I mustn't call you 'Heston,' must I?”
“No, you certainly mustn't.”
“But isn't it wonderful? Isn't it the sweetest thing in the world?”
“You bet it is.”
“Why when I— But you don't know what I'm talking about.”
“I know what you're talking with.”
“Your voice; and you asked if it wasn't the sweetest thing in the world. I agreed.”
“Oh!” I heard a giggle and then: “You're horrid. I mean the other thing.”
“What other thing?”
“Didn't I tell you?”
“Listen—” that eolian voice dropped to a croony, secretive, just-you-and-me whisper. “The local is on time!”
Mr. Williams Understands Perfectly.
TWENTY minutes before I'd have busted the receiver in my gratification—but now: pshaw! it didn't matter to me whether Red Williams ever reached Elmville. I didn't say anything because I couldn't bear to throw another shock into the poor little kid. As it was I was shaping up as the horridest boob she'd ever had in her pampered young life.
“Y-y-y-you don't seem glad.”
“I—I—am glad: terribly glad! I must come up there at once and see you. Please—”
“Certainly. Tell you what: I'll count—real slow—and see how high I get before you reach me.”
Now, I'm asking you if that ain't putting it up to a guy? If my watch was right she must have counted six less than nothing when I stood on her front veranda kind of heavey in the chest and trying to smile like it was all in the day's work.
“And now we're saved, aren't we?”
“M-m—h-m! As much as Red Williams can save us.”
“As much as—listen, Mr. Heston, I'm terribly disappointed in you. You don't seem a bit glad.”
“I am. I'm happy as a lark. I could sing—tra-la-le-la-le-la!”
“You look like an undertaker,” she averred, “and sound like a misguided and consumptive siren.”
“I guess I ought to be happy,” I remarked. “I would be if I were of the strictly mercenary breed. Did you ever see that much unearned and tainted increment in your pretty young life?” I spread out my palm and disclosed four new, crisp fifty-dollar bills. She gasped.
“Where did you get it?”
“That,” I said, breaking the news with a gentleness and tact which in college won me the soubriquet of “Hob-Nail Heston.” “That is the money paid to Mr. Red Williams on a prearranged deal—to earn which he must see to it that the Elmville team loses the game!”
Then I plunged in desperately—not looking at her face, because I wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and I was afraid if my psychic current got mixed up with hers I just naturally wouldn't have the heart.
When I stuck a mental “Finis” on the climax I sat back expecting to see that little lace handkerchief mopping away at those wide-open eyes, but did I? I did not. Instead, there was a steely glint in the blue and that square set to the jaw that I remarked on once before.
“This is pretty bad,” she said calmly and evenly, hysterics forgotten for once. “I suppose we could have the Norvel manager arrested for conspiracy?”
Into my head popped the first faint glimmerings of an idea. I let it simmer awhile, and let her quiz ahead.
“No-o,” I answered, “they're too clever for that. We could arrest the little geezer in the gray suit if we could lay hands on him, but this was a cash transaction, and the Norvel bunch doesn't figure in it actually.”
“It's hard—” her little hands were balled into two tiny, fighting fists. “It means that they knew this Williams could beat them. If I had him where It want him—”
All of a sudden it busted. That idea of mine—bango! just like a skyrocket on a dark night. Before either of us knew what was what I'd slipped a cog and hugged her, apologized, been forgiven, and was dancing an extemporaneous hula around the porch.
“I've got it!” I yelled, “I've got it!”
Her little eyes were dancing again, and the light of a thousand devils was reborn.
“If you're that happy, I know it must be an inspiration.”
“It is. It's better than that. You gave me the idea. We can't arrest the Norvel bunch, but we can arrest this Mr. Red Williams when he pulls in on the local!”
She clapped her hands, and then her face fell.
“But that's an empty sort of victory, isn't it? It leaves Elmville with an ordinary semi-professional team against the Norvel ringers, doesn't it?”
“No,” I grinned, with the general expression of Balaam's pet steed on my face. “Not exactly. We're going to win!”
“But how?” She stamped her 1-C shoe with an impatient toss of her dainty head. “How?”
“Ssh! Red Williams is going to pitch us to victory!”
“I—I—don't catch on—”
“You willing to trust this to me?”
“Now listen; is there a magistrate in town whom you can trust, not only to do what you ask, but also to keep his mouth shut tighter'n a clam that's drownded to death?”
“Stevens. Yes, he's the man.”
“Good. Come along with me and do what I say. You're going, first of all, to swear out a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Red Williams.”
I'll never forget the face of that grizzled old magistrate when the little dame walked in with me, whom he thought was Red Williams, and swore out a warrant for the arrest of a gentleman by that name!
True to his promise, though, he asked no questions, although he looked from my grinning face to her smiling one, and I could see with half an eye that he thought we were both in line for unanimous election to the padded-cell row.
“What's the charge against Mr.—er—a—Williams?”
She looked at me and I looked at him.
“Fraud,” I said calmly. “Fraud, and obtaining money under false pretenses and conspiracy; especially conspiracy. Don't leave that out, whatever you do.”
He made a couple of motions like a fish that's come up for the third time and has a little too much air in his gullet for real comfort, and then he wrote out the little instrument. That done, he handed it to her, and she turned it over to me. I could see the thing was too much for him.
“Just have a constable out at the ball park,” I said as we were going. “There's liable to be something doing. And say, you might make out an assault and battery warrant in blank. It might come in handy.”
He choked a while.
“Very good. I know I promised not to ask questions, Miss Ethel, but—when you get ready to explain I wish you'd explain to me first.”
“I will,” she giggled, and then to me when we were safe out of earshot; “Isn't he the funniest old darling!”
From the magistrate's office we went down to the depot. One look at the time-board reassured me; the local was still running two hours ahead of time, which, translated, meant that she was on time. I warned Ethel that she was to follow my lead from ace to deuce, and not to be surprised at anything that happened. She promised, and I knew she was enough of a sport to be as good as her word, even though that was given sight unseen.
And promptly at two o'clock she let out a little squeal, pressed my fingers, and pointed out the puffing local.
That train must have had a little pride at that; she made three false attempts before she finally choked to a halt in front of the depot.
“Where's the Pullman?” I asked the station agent. He looked at me like he thought I was dippy.
“Pullman? Whadaya think this is—the Dixie Flyer?”
I readily gathered his meaning; it was quite evident that the local boasted no velvety cushions. Then Red Williams got off the train.
Say! I've been told that when it comes to the two-fisted game I'm right handy, but I begun trembling the minute I lamped that chap. He was about my height, but he weighed at least thirty pounds more; heavy set, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, and with a nasty hang to his left eyelid.
Whoever that guy really was, and in whatever league he played, I'm betting a 1916 silver dollar to the hole around which a one-cent doughnut is constructed, that the umpires knew he was among those present. But it was up to me, and while I confess I might have shirked if I'd been handling the deal by my lonesome, there wasn't a thing to do but step into the fireworks' zone.
“Mr. Williams?” I inquired.
He looked me over slowly and insolently.
“That's my monniker,” he growled.
“Mine's Heston. This young lady here owns the Elmville Tigers.”
I didn't like the look he threw her. In fact it rather made my flesh creep, and it made the girl blush. I guess it must have been that which nerved me to talk straight from the shoulder.
“Williams,” I said, “Miss Dale and I are onto you. We know you've been paid to throw the game to the Norvel team—”
He set his suit-case down and squared off. “Now listen here, cull; I don't wanna hafter mess that mama's-boy face all over y'r map, but—”
I flashed the warrant on him.
“Don't be an utter fool, Williams. Listen to what I have to say. This paper here is a warrant charging you with conspiracy, fraud, and accepting money under false pretenses. When I got to this town this morning they mistook me for you. A guy in a light gray suit slipped me two hundred in cash, thinking I was Williams—and he told me there was more where that came from when Elmville lost! Get that? I've got the goods on you, Williams—”
His face was a bit chalky, but his kind never goes down without a bluff.
“Yuh got nothin' on me. Not a darned thing.”
Once again that square set to Ethel Dale's chin. She sized up alongside Williams like a bantam hen making up to a Shanghai rooster.
“If we've got nothing on you, Mr. Red Williams,” she snapped in that icy tone she had on tap for the proper occasion, “just you try any funny business. We'll have you in jail so quick it 'll make your head swim. Now listen to what Mr. Heston has to tell you.”
He simmered down, and I talked briskly and to the point.
“And that's the way it stands now, Williams. You're going to be kept under cover until the game starts. And when the game starts you're going in there to pitch—and Elmville is going to win! Get that—Elmville is going to win!”
“Any man's li'ble to have an off day,” he whined, with the belligerence gone from his manner.
“Is that so? But to-day isn't going to be an off day for Mr. Red Williams. Not on your life it isn't. He's going to pitch air-tight ball or he's going to spend the night in the Elmville calaboose. There's going to be a couple of constables sitting at the two entrances of that ball park this afternoon, Williams, and—well, I guess you've got a pretty good idea that we're not exactly bluffing.”
“But say, where do I get off at? I had a roll comin' to me.”
“You get off when the game's over. And you get the money Elmville promised you—and not another cent.”
“How about that two hundred from Bud Con—”
“Bud Connor, eh? That's the name of the man behind the deal. Much obliged, Red, for the info. Well, that two hundred isn't going to be earned, see? And it's going to stay in the treasury of the Elmville ball club.”
Did Red Williams agree to our little plan? Can a Zeppelin fall? You betcha. Say, he tried to keep up a bluff front, but if I ever in my life saw a man that was scared stiff, Williams was it.
One time we let him read the arrest warrant, and when he finished I could tell by the ugly mug of him that if he had the power in his arm to pitch a no-hit game he'd do it. I even pointed out the two constables, and took the trouble to explain that down in Dixie, officers are prone to shoot first and make the arrest at their leisure. Believe me, kid, I had that bird's goat hog-tied.
SAY! have you ever lived in a town of twelve thousand population (according to the census; 25,000 according to the local Chamber of Commerce) that had the baseball fever and an almost-pennant-winning team? If you haven't, invade one some day along toward the end of the season when a crucial series is under way—but no! you've got to get the spirit of the thing or it's no go.
This big league stuff is as much like that sort of baseball as riding in a streetcar is like being Barney Oldfield's lone passenger on a new, oiled track.
In the first place, in little towns, baseball is a community affair. Financially it is usually a losing proposition, and the public divides the expenses. But root! My Gawd! man, the three thousand fans, some of them from Norvel, that jammed the park that afternoon would have put a Polo Grounds crowd at the end of a Giant winning streak to the blush.
Everybody knew everybody else's first name and used it, and the sheet-metal works, around which the town is built, must have spent the last month manufacturing noise-making machines. It was as bad as a Yale-Harvard game when neither goal line has been crossed during the year—and if you've ever seen one of those things, bo, you know what rooting is.
Ethel told me I could trust Charley Harding, Elmville's second-baseman; and as Harding is about six-three, and proportionately broad, I felt somewhat safe in letting Red warm up with him behind the grand stand. I wanted to make a little grand stand play with the Norvel bunch—and I could see the stage was getting set.
Mike McGill, a husky ex-major leaguer, and manager of the Norvel Sox, looked over toward us a few times, kind of nervous like. The boys were loafing around, tapping fungos and tossing a few balls to one another, and bowing to the fair sex of their personal acquaintance, and I could see that Mike was looking for some one.
Presently he slunk off toward the third-base end of the frame grand stand, and I followed him—with my eyes; and sure enough he starts talking to the little man in gray who slipped me the two hundred! I had a good lone chuckle.
After a while McGill came striding back with a what-th'-hell swing to his shoulders, and a Jess Willard set to his jaw. He nodded to me, and I joined him right near home-plate, wearing a smile like that of a blushing bride; right happy but a bit apprehensive.
“Who the devil are you?” snaps McGill.
“Napoleon,” I answers, “crossing the Delaware.”
“You think you're a smart one, huh?” He poked his ugly face in mine—and I removed mine. “Well, I'm here to tell you now—”
“That two hundred's safe, McGill—in the Elmville coffers. You hadn't ought to have done that, Mike.”
“Say, young feller,” advised McGill, “you'd better remove yourself from being so close to me, pronto! That complexion is too pretty to spoil.” He turned away and then swung on his heel and leered at me in a way that made me feel like the first day on the briny. “Yet!” he said by way of epilogue.
My bunch was scrappy enough, and of course they thought I was the Hector MacDonald that was going to pull 'em through. It wasn't until after the practise was over and two scared-looking umpires trotted onto the field that I played my big card.
I produced Red Williams!
I'd have given a million to know what was in Mike McGill's mind just then. On the other hand, I knew what Red Williams was thinking. He was thinking that a chance of mixing things with McGill was a heap preferable to spending a few weeks in the Elmville lock-up—and then maybe fifty-two more in the county jail. If I'm any judge of men, Red went into that box prepared to pitch the game of his life.
And that game! My Gawd! Miss Agnes, it was a humdinger. Baseball! Say, this 0-0 stuff ain't base-ball; it's machinery. Baseball is the kind of stuff we pulled that day. At the end of the eighth inning the score was 3-3.
But they hadn't earned a run off Red; not one. All three had come in as the result of errors on the part of the local lads. There wasn't an inning that somebody didn't get as far as third, and every ball and strike decision of the umps behind the bat was greeted with catcalls from one bunch of rooters or the other. Honest, those arbiters could have had the whole crowd pulled for criminal libel.
Poor Red! I got right sorry for him. Every time one of the men behind him would make a bobble he'd grow a sickly green, and 'tween innings, he'd plead:
“Be reasonable, Heston; be reasonable. I'm doin' my best. They ain't earned a run offen me; they ain't made but two clean hits. Every time I see you lookin' at that rod-totin' cop at the gate I get nervous. I'm tryin' to win; swear I am.”
I felt like sympathizing with him, but I didn't dare.
“You'd better win, Red,” I'd say, “or you're liable to stay in our midst awhile. And they say there are mice and snakes in this town jail.”
“Ugh! I hate snakes.”
“Me, too, Red. But a word to the wise, you know— Also, the wages of sin is the jug.”
Neither side scored in the ninth session, although each set of fans had a half dozen cases of heart-failure. In the tenth the first Norvel man up walked, stole second, and was sacrificed to third. Then Red fanned the next two on six pitched balls. McGill was walking around like a chicken that's been suddenly and completely deprived of his head.
With two out in our half of the tenth we had the bases jammed. The next man up dribbled one down the third-base line. The Norvel third-sacker was a Norvel boy, and he got nervous and dribbled the ball. Our man slid—but they caught him.
After we'd made the local police force pull their guns on the crowd to get 'em back behind the lines, only promising them that after the game was over the umpires would be fair meat to the first person on deck, we went into the field.
Red fanned the first man, and the second lined to short. And the third batter—
Connected with the second pitched ball and lined it over the left field fence!
If it hadn't been a tragedy it would have been the funniest thing I ever saw. I swung around and I saw little Ethel Dale biting her lips and staring at me—me, mind you, like she expected me to get out there and do a Connie Mack all by my lonesome. They didn't score again, and when poor Williams came in he was all over a cold sweat.
“Have a heart, Heston. I didn't go for to do it. Honest, I didn't. I thought I had him, but he just leaned up against it, and—blooie!”
“You're second at bat this inning, Red, and you'd better by a durned sight score a run,” I said sternly.
The first man up popped out to right. Then Red laid a nasty one down in front of the plate and scooted for first. The pitcher got the ball and heaved it there in time, but Red went up in the air and started in the general direction of the bag.
I guess that first-baseman was human. He saw a pair of fiery eyes and a set of shining spikes, and he heard a few guttural words coming from between Red's lips that wouldn't have any place at all in a missionary meeting. He ducked off the bag and Red was safe.
Next man up sacrificed neatly, and Red got to second. The Norvel pitcher, cool as ice, wound up and shot over a strike. Red looked at me pitifully, and I nodded. On the next pitched ball he shot for third. This time he spiked his man—but he was safe.
Next ball was a strike. Two out, two strikes, and the game lost if Red failed to score!
There wasn't anything to do but take a chance, and believe me he took it. About all that was visible of Red was those demon eyes of his and a cloud of dust in his immediate rear. He lunged, spikes first, straight at the catcher. But the catcher was one of the Norvel ringers, and he'd faced spikes before.
The ball spanked into his mitt, and he just spread his legs far enough to let Red slide between 'em. And he pinned the ball to him so hard that Red turned over with a little “Ooof!” and lay still for a minute.
I got to him before the others.
“I'm sorry, Red,” I said. “You did your best, I'll hand you that. Now beat it before McGill tries any strong-arm stuff!”
“You're a square guy, bo. S'long.” And he stood not upon the order of his going, but skedaddled at once.
IT was over—all over. The poor little girl had lost her club, her money, the pennant, and about everything else she had that was worth losing. I knew she'd be in line for solicitations, and I moseyed through the crowd to find her.
Oh! it was a sad crowd—too sad to kill the umpires. I found Ethel sitting all alone in the stand, staring over the heads of the mob at nothing in particular, and clasping and unclasping her little hands. “I'm awful sorry—”
“Don't sympathize with me,” she stamped. “I'll hate you if you do. I don't want sympathy.”
Now I know I didn't have a bit of right to raise my eyes from her pretty face right then, but something disturbed my psychic innards. I looked up—and I saw Arthur Walters, treasurer of the club, beating it for the players' gate. And he had an expression on that foxy map of his that shouldn't have been on the face of any man who has just lost all of his club's available assets, including liabilities and pennant. I was gone in a jump.
“Where are you going?” wailed Ethel, showing signs of being her dear little, sweet little, weepy self again.
“Gumshoeing!” I called back. “Pittypat work. Wait there for me.”
Somehow I managed to trail Walters, I guess I can thank the light-blue ribbon around his straw hat for that. And he turned into the Elm Inn and went up-stairs.
I followed and discovered that he'd gone into room 29. I hiked down, bribed a bell-hop with a two-dollar note to give me the key to 27, which was next door, and once in there I did some transom work. And I saw a hard-faced stranger with a checker-board suit count out so many hundred-dollar notes into little Arty's palm that I nearly had heart failure.
“I'm taking out three hundred commission,” snarled the fat party.
“You said a hundred and fifty,” protested Art.
“I'll make that four hundred,” sizzled the stout guy.. “And if you let out a yip I'll raise that ante and spill the dope about your betting against Elmville!”
It wasn't until a couple of hours later that I had time to sit down and think about how surprised I was when I got the lay of the land.
Of course it's all simple now. Art Walters had double-crossed Ethel Dale, worked hand-in-glove with Mike McGill so Elmville's defeat would be a sure thing. Then, for all I've been able to gather, I judge he was going to tell Ethel he'd come into a fortune, and count on her state of misery to induce her to take a matrimonial chance with him. It was a sweet little frame-up.
Right along there was where I put the finishing touches on my hero rôle.
Old Checkerboards beat it, and li'l' Arthur sat down to check up his cush. Sherlock Holmes Heston—that's I'm—slipped into the corridor, and then suddenly into the room. If Art had been a woman, and I'd been her husband, and you'd been the audience, you'd know you were witnessing the climax of a problem drama.
I smiled as sweetly as I remembered and held out my hand.
“About six thousand, I believe, Arty, old chap.”
“Wh-wh-what are you talking about?” He tried to look innocent and belligerent and surprised—well, he hit the last register, anyway; I'll hand him that much.
“For winning, of course,” I said.
“Now listen here, Mr. Arthur Walters, it strikes me that if you have any respect for that hide of yours, or for your liberty and otherwise untrammeled freedom, you'll hand that money over without another word. I'll even give you a receipt if you want it.”
“This is a hold-up!”
“Sure. It's also a cinch. You can take your choice; hand that money over to me quietly and peaceable, or I'll take it from you by force and stick you in jail.”
“You're a liar, and you know it,” I said politely. “You bet the club's money against the club, and as the club lost, you won. So fork over”—I remembered that nice word that McGill used—“pronto!”
“You'll keep quiet about it?”
“Nobody but Ethel will know, and I can promise you she won't tell. However, it wouldn't hurt the community any if you managed to make yourself scarce. And for goodness sake don't whine. I might forget I'm too happy to take a crack at you.”
When I left that room I had more money about me than I'd thought there was in the world. And I took it to the ball park.
Ever see a ball park thirty minutes after the last game of the season? Say, it's about as cheerful looking as Wall Street, New York, at one a.m. Most parks, that is. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances. This was one of the times, and Ethel Dale was it—or should I say “them”?
I sat down beside her—she was tight-lipped, and brave as a Belgian—and without looking at her I started counting out a few piles of hundreds. And then I explained the whole thing to her. I'll spare you the details. Happy! Say, a lark was an undertaker compared to her.
And then I managed to work a sad and subdued nuance into my voice.
“If only he'd bet the other way,” I moaned. “If only you were penniless!”
Of course we'd only known each other for a day, but that didn't keep those pinky cheeks of hers from signaling that she was hep to what I was driving at.
“I—s-s-s-sup-suppose I was—”
“A poor man might have a chance—might have the nerve—”
Only the romantic mooing of two cows in an adjoining lot could be heard for about five minutes. And then, for the fourth and last time her chin set square and her eyes glowed.
“I hate men who haven't any nerve!” she flashed.
I guess she must have stopped hating me right there!
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1959, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 63 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.