Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 3

CHAPTER III


A LOST BALL


Ralph Fairbanks had "woke up," had seen a great light, had formed a mighty resolution all in a minute, and was off like a flash.

As he bolted through the doorway it seemed as if wings impelled him.

He realized what a good mother he had, and how much she had done for him.

Following that was one overwhelming conclusion: to prove how he appreciated the fact.

"Yes," he said, as he hurried along, "I'd be a sneak to let my mother slave while I went sliding easy through life. If I've done it so far, it was because I never guessed there wasn't something left from father's estate to support us, and never stopped to think that there mightn't be. She's hidden everything from me, in her kind, good way. Well, I'll pay her back. I see the nail I'm to hit on the head, and I'll drive it home before I'm twenty-four hours older!"

Gasper Farrington had opened a gate on the highway of Ralph Fairbanks' tranquil existence, and, though he never meant it, had aroused the boy's soul to a sudden conception of duty. And Ralph had seen the path beyond, clear and distinct.

It seemed to him as if with one wave of his hand he had swept aside all the fervid dreams of boyhood, formed a resolution, set his mark, and was started in that very minute on a brand-new life.

Ralph did not slacken his gait until he reached a square easily identified as a much used ball grounds.

Over in one corner was a flat, rambling structure. It had once been somebody's home, had fallen into decay and vacancy. The club had rented it for a nominal sum, fixed it up a bit, and this was headquarters.

Over the door hung the purple pennant of the club, bearing in its center a broad, large "C." In the doorway sat Ned Talcott, an ambitious back-stop, who spent most of his time about the place, never tired of the baseball atmosphere.

He looked curiously at Ralph's flustered appearance, but the latter nodded silently, passed inside, and then called out:

"Come in here, Ned—I want to see you."

Ned was by his side in a jiffy. An enthusiast, he fairly worshiped his expert whole-souled captain, and counted it an honor to do anything for him.

"None of the crowd here, I see," remarked Ralph. "Got your uniform yet, Ned?"

"Why, no," answered Ned. "I've got the cloth picked out, and it's all right. Father's away, though, and as we won't need the suits for show till the new series begin next week, I didn't hurry."

"We're about of a size," went on Ralph, looking his companion over.

"And resemblance stops right there, eh?" chuckled Ned.

"I was thinking," pursued Ralph with business-like terseness, as he unfastened the door of his locker. "Maybe we could strike a trade? I want to sell."

He drew out his baseball uniform, tastily reposing in a big pasteboard box just as he had brought it from the tailor that morning.

"I've been thinking maybe I could strike a deal with some one to take this off my hands," he added.

"Eh!" ejaculated Ned, in a bewildered way.

"Yes, you see it's brand-new, whole outfit complete, haven't even put it on yet."

"You'll look nobby in it when you do have it on!"

Ralph said nothing on this score, compressing his lips a trifle.

"It cost me eight dollars," he continued, after a moment's silence.

"Yes, I know that's the regular price."

"It fits you, or, with very slight alteration, can be made to. I wish you'd try it on, Ned, and give me five dollars for it."

"Why, I don't understand, Ralph?" faltered Ned, completely puzzled.

Ralph winced. He realized that there would be a general commotion when he told the rest of the club what he was now vaguely intimating to Ned Talcott.

Ralph did not flatter himself a particle when he comprehended that every member of the nine was his friend, champion and admirer, and that a general protest would go up from the ranks when he announced his intentions.

"Is it a bargain?" he asked, smiling quizzically at Ned's puzzled face. "See here, I'd better out with it. I shan't need the uniform, Ned, because I've got to resign from the club."

"Oh, never!" vociferated Ned, starting back in dismay. "Say, now—"

"Yes, say that again, Ralph Fairbanks!" broke in a challenging voice.

Ralph was shaken a trifle by the unexpected interruption. His lips set even a little firmer, however, as he turned and faced his trusty first baseman. Will Cheever, and in his train four other members of the club.

"It's true," said Ralph seriously, "just as it is sudden and sure. I've got to drop athletics as a sport, fellows—for a time, anyhow—and I've got to do it right away."

"You're dreaming!" scoffed Cheever, bustling up in his inimitable, push-ahead way, and pulling Ralph playfully about. "Resign? Huh! On the last test game—with the pennant almost ours? Gag him!"

"Why," drawled a tone of pathetic alarm, "it would be rank treachery, you know!"

"Hello, are you awake?" jeered Will, turning on the last speaker.

Ralph looked at him too, and through some wayward perversity of his nature his face grew more determined than ever. His eyes flashed quickly, and he regarded the speaker with disfavor, but he kept silence.

"You won't do it, you know!" blundered the newcomer, making his way forward. "It would queer the whole kit. What have we been working for? To get the bulge, and run the circuit. Why, I've just counted on it!"

Grif Farrington, for that was the speaker's name, expressed the intensest sense of personal injury as he spoke.

He was the nephew of Gasper Farrington, although he did not resemble his uncle in any striking particular as to form or feature. Both were of the same genus, however, for the crabbed capitalist was universally designated "a shark" by his neighbors.

Grif was a fat, overgrown fellow, with big saucer eyes and flabby cheeks and chin. "Bullhead" some of the boys had dubbed him. But they often found that what they mistook for stupidity was in reality indolence, and that in any deal where his own selfish concern was involved Grif managed to come out the winner.

As Ralph did not speak, Grif grew even more voluble.

"I say, it would be rank treachery!" he declared. "And a shame to treat a club so. If we lose this game we're ditched for only scrub home games. Win it, and we are the champion visiting club all over the county. That's what we have been working for. Are you going to spoil it? Haven't I put up like a man when the club was behind. See here, Ralph Fairbanks, I'll give you—I'll make it five dollars if you'll keep in for just this afternoon's game."

"Shut up, you chump!" warned Will Cheever, slipping between the boor and Ralph, whose color was rising dangerously fast.

Will pushed aside Grif's pocketbook, linked an arm in that of Ralph, and led him from the building, winking encouragingly to his mates.

He came back to the group in about a quarter of an hour, but alone.

"Fixed it?" inquired half a dozen eager voices.

"Yes, I've fixed it," said Cheever, though none too cordially. "He's going to leave us, fellows, and it's too bad! He'll play the game this afternoon, but that's the last."

"What's up?" put in Grif Farrington, in his usual coarsely inquisitive way.

"You was nearly up—or down!" snapped Cheever tartly. "You nearly spoiled things for us. Money isn't everything, if you have got lots of it, and haven't the sense to know that it's an insult to offer to buy what Ralph Fairbanks would give to his friends for nothing, or not at all!"

When the game was called at two o'clock, Ralph was on hand.

He was the object of more than ordinary interest to his own and the opposition club that afternoon. The word had gone the rounds that he had practically resigned from service, and the fact caused great speculation. His nearest friends detected a certain serious change in him that puzzled them. They knew him well enough to discern that something of unusual weight lay upon his mind.

According to enthusiastic little Tom Travers, Ralph Fairbanks was "just splendid!" that afternoon. Whatever Ralph had on his mind, he did not allow it to interfere with the work on hand.

Ralph was the heaviest batter of the club, and on this particular occasion he conducted himself brilliantly, and the pennant was the property of the Criterions long before the fifth inning was completed. The club was in ecstasies, and Grif Farrington, who had money and time for spending it, wore a grin of placid self-satisfaction on his flat, fat face.

"Whoop!" yelled Will Cheever, as the ninth inning went out in a blaze of baseball glory.

Will posed to give Ralph, bat in hand, a royal "last one." It was Ralph's farewell to the beloved diamond field. He poised the bat and caught the ball with a masterly stroke that had something cannon-like in its execution.

Crack! he sent it flying obliquely, and felt as if with that final stroke he had driven baseball with all its lovely attributes clear out of his life.

Smash! the ball grazed the high brick wall around the old unused factory to the left, struck an upper window, shattered a pane to atoms, and disappeared.

"Lost ball!" jeered little Tom Travers.

No one went after it. The fence surrounding the factory bore two signs that deterred—one was "Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted," and the other announced that it was "For Rent, by the owner, Gasper Farrington."

Ralph made a grimace, and a mental note of later mending the breakage for which he was responsible.

Will Cheever caught him up as he was heading for home.

"See here, Ralph," he remarked, "if you wasn't so abominably close-mouthed——"

"About what?" challenged Ralph, pleasantly serious. "Why, there's no mystery about my resigning. I had to do it."

"Why?"

"I've got to go to work. My mother needs the money, and I'm old enough."

"What you going to work at?" inquired Will, with real interest.

"Railroading,—if I can get it to do."