by Janet Brayden
Johnny Lancer reined his Palomino, whom he had named Barranca, to a halt. About a quarter of a mile from where he sat he could see his brother Scott, book in hand and several wooden stakes under his arm, pacing off an apparently set distance and placing some sort of marker at each stop. Shaking his head he absently stroked Barranca’s neck, pushed his hat back to dangle on his back and studied his fair-haired sibling.
“Barranca, I think big brother Scott’s been out in the sun too long. He’s talkin’ to himself and walkin’ in circles.” Picking up the reins he urged his mount forward at a walk.
“Fifty-Seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty.” Scott stopped talking and placed a wooden stake at the spot. Then he made a slight left turn and started counting again. Reaching sixty he placed another wooden stake on the ground where he’d stopped this time.
“Hey brother,” Johnny said as he and Barranca approached. “What are you doing?”
“I’m marking off a diamond,” Scott replied.
“Yes.” Picking up his book from where he’d placed it on the ground Scott made another slight left and counted off another sixty feet.
“This don’t look like no diamond. Diamonds are bright and shiny like the one in Miz Talbot’s engagement ring. How can a patch of grass and weeds be a diamond?” Johnny was puzzled.
“A baseball diamond Johnny,” Scott explained patiently. “It’s a relatively new game. I thought I’d mark off a field and find some people interested in learning it. Maybe have a charity game or start a town league like they have back east.”
“What the heck is a league?”
“A league is an organization where a group of people form teams. The league sets the rules for all the teams to follow. Only in this case they’ll enforce the rules in this book.” Scott showed Johnny the book he was reading. The title was Rules and Regulations of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club Adopted September 23, 1845.
“That book’s as old as you are brother,” Johnny noted. “You really think you’re gonna find a bunch of people interested in learning a game that’s that old?”
“Sure? Why not?” Scott said. “You need nine players for a team plus an umpire. The Umpire makes sure that the game is played by the rules. Each team has a captain, a Catcher and men to cover the bases and that area out there,” he waved his arm out toward the field, “which is called the outfield. I saw a few games when I was in the army. General Abner Doubleday is generally credited with creating the game though that may not be strictly the whole truth.”
“That’s all well and good but where are you gonna find someone to be umpire let alone enough players?” Johnny asked skeptically.
“Why that’s going to be our esteemed sheriff – your friend Val Crawford,” Scott answered.
At the dinner table Johnny and Scott continued their discussion over Teresa and Maria’s scrumptious dinner of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, coffee, milk for Johnny and Teresa and a gold cake with vanilla icing for dessert.
“I don’t know what ‘esteemed sheriff’ means,” Johnny said to his father, “but Scott, here, is out of his mind if he thinks he can talk Val into playing games! He’ll laugh him all the way back to Boston!”
“You don’t know that,” Scott said as he laid his fork down on his plate after swallowing a mouthful of potatoes and gravy. “It can’t hurt to ask. I was thinking we’d get two teams together and find a way to raise money for charity. There’s always the orphanage in need of money and supplies. And that little town north of here that had the fire – what was the name of it?”
“Bear Creek,” his father supplied.
“Yes, Bear Creek,” Scott agreed. “That fire wiped out a lot of homes and most of the businesses. People all around the county have sent what little they could spare. A baseball game is just the kind of novelty that could bring out the curious and we could raise money by charging a small admission fee and having the ladies sell refreshments. Lemonade and cookies for instance.”
“I still say Val ain’t gonna go for it,” Johnny insisted.
To forestall any further argument Murdoch said, “There’s only one way to find out. Tomorrow Scott can ride into Green River and ask him. And I think you’ll find Jim Talbot and a couple of the new arrivals quite interested. Jim follows all the news back east and his brother-in-law tells him that baseball is becoming quite popular back in Massachusetts and New York. That’s where the Knickerbockers in Scott’s book come in. It’s an old nickname for natives of New York State. Dates back to the early Dutch settlers if I recall correctly.”
Johnny helped himself to another biscuit, broke it open and buttered it. Then he stuffed it in his mouth before taking up the subject of the proposed baseball game again. In fact, the plate of biscuits had been refilled twice because Johnny, the bottomless pit as Teresa often thought of him, had devoured nearly a dozen of them all by himself. Looking at the slender young man she and Maria often wondered where he put all the food he tucked away. It was a tough job to see that he stayed filled up.
“Well, I still say Val’s gonna laugh him right out of the office,” Johnny declared.
“We shall see, little brother, we shall see.”
“You wanta explain that to me again Scott?” Val asked not sure he’d heard right.
“I want you to be the umpire for a charity baseball game,” the blond Lancer explained. “Nobody could possibly complain about unfair advantages for either team if the sheriff is the umpire.”
“And just what does this ‘umpire’ do?”
“He sees that the players and their coaches abide by the rules and regulations of the game. Don’t you see that’s why you’re perfect? You already enforce the laws of Green River so what’s the difference between that and enforcing the rules of a game? It’s for a good cause and it should be a lot of fun.”
“You have to excuse my brother, Val,” Johnny said with a cheeky grin. “He hears the word charity and he’s all set to do anything – including setting up what he calls a town league. He thinks he can get enough people interested to have teams from all the local ranches and the townspeople too. Personally I think he’s crazy.”
“Well, I’ll tell ya, I ain’t never heard of baseball nor rounders neither but it do sound like a lot of fun,” Val said with a grin of his own. “Count me in. I’ll find someone to deputy for me so’s I don’t miss any of the games.”
“Who do you think you’re going to get to fill in for you?” Johnny wanted to know.
“Well there’s you for one,” Val said with a wink at Scott who swallowed a grin of his own.
“What? Me? No. No way! Count me out!”
“Why not little brother?” Scott asked with a gleam in his eye. “I hear you did a wonderful job when Mike Wilson and his buddies beat me up last summer.”
“That was different!” Johnny protested.
“How was it so different from now?” Val wanted to know. “I needed a deputy then and I need one now.”
Johnny opened his mouth to protest again only this time he caught the wink that his brother and friend exchanged. He scowled in mock anger at them.
“Very funny you two.”
The other two men burst into laughter. They were unable to contain themselves any longer. When they were able to get themselves under control again Val told Johnny that he knew a couple of good men that were itching for the chance to help him out. One of them happened to be Tim Pittman’s father and he could certainly use the money to offset the inconsistent cash flow of his little farm.
When all was said and done Scott had given Val the schedule of organizational meetings, then he and Johnny left to distribute some handbills and post a couple of notices up around town. They left one at the saloon, the cantina, the general store and the bank. The notices created quite a stir among storeowners, farmers and cowhands alike. At the General Store they ran into Jim Talbot.
“Well, good morning, Scott, Johnny,” their neighbor said. “What’s happening at Lancer that has your father allowing you two to run loose in Green River at the same time?”
“No emergency Mr. Talbot,” Scott said. “I’m trying to organize a baseball league in the area. I came in to ask Val Crawford if he’d be the umpire. I figure our esteemed sheriff would make a good one – who’d dare argue with him?” Scott grinned. “Johnny, here, had to tag along because he was sure Val would turn me down.”
“And did he?”
“No. Quite the contrary – he seems very eager even if he will have to study the rule book.”
“And this surprises you Johnny?” the tall blond rancher asked his young friend.
“Well it did but I suppose it shouldn’t,” Johnny admitted sheepishly. “Old Val’s just full of surprises. I guess I should have learned my lesson when I found out he was buying blankets he doesn’t need from Lone Crow’s widow.”
“Johnny, my boy,” Jim said clapping the younger man on the left shoulder, “nothing Val Crawford does surprises me. I’m surprised, you two being friends and all, that you’re surprised by anything. If there’s anything I’ve learned about Val, it’s that he loves to do the unexpected and keep people guessing.”
“Yeah, you’re sure right about that,” Johnny grinned. “Maybe that’s why we like him so much – ‘cause he’s unpredictable.”
“Oh, by the way,” Talbot said. “I have something for you two in my wagon.”
“Oh?” Scott said.
“Yes,” Jim said with a grin. “My wife figures that any day I come into one of our little towns for supplies is a day I might run into you two – especially when you’ve been too busy to visit.”
The boys followed him to where his buckboard stood hitched to a pair of black Morgans in front of the hardware store. The Morgans were small for some but Jim knew them to be a sturdy breed that worked hard and were known for their steadiness and gentle nature. Reaching under the seat on the passenger side he pulled out a paper sack, which he handed to Scott.
“She made a big batch of molasses cookies yesterday and sent these in with me this morning. Now I can safely go back home because my mission has been accomplished!” He laughed at Johnny’s eager expression as he snatched the bag away from his brother. “If I hadn’t seen you here I would have had to swing by Lancer on my way home and look you up. And I don’t aim to be caught by Maria and getting her mad at me giving you two treats just before dinner!”
“That’s ok, Mr. Talbot,” Johnny said with a cheeky grin. “I’m always ready for one of Maria’s special meals and old Scott here – well I’ll just let him walk home. Then he’ll be sure to be hungry.”
Scott playfully swung on his brother who ducked eliciting a chuckle from their neighbor whose own boys had acted much the same – only they were growing teenagers at the time – not young men in their twenties like these two were. They were a constant source of amusement and pleasure to Jim and his wife, Maura, who had lost all three of their sons in the war. While nobody could ever replace Kendall, Rory and Blair the two Lancer sons held a special place in Jim and Maura’s hearts. They had known Scott’s mother, Catherine, briefly before Scott was born and Maura had been there when Johnny was born and watched him grow from infant to chubby, blue eyed toddler that followed their boys around wherever they went. It was as much a tragedy to them, as to the boy’s father, when his mother ran off with a gambler taking him with her. It was cause for much celebration when both sons returned home where they belonged to live and work at their father’s side.
“Mr. Talbot would you care to join the committee that’s forming the league?” Scott asked. “We could use some men like you to help organize the teams.”
“Sure, put me down on your list. Just let me know when and where the meetings are. I might even decide to join one of the teams myself. I haven’t played a good game of baseball since before you were born.”
“You? You want to play?” Johnny asked in a stunned voice almost dropping the bag of cookies in his shock.
“Sure! Why not?” was the answer.
“Well you’re, you’re kinda…” Johnny didn’t want to voice the thought that had jumped out in the form of his first question.
“Kind of what Johnny?” Jim asked with a twinkle in his eye certain that he knew what was on the boy’s mind. “Old?”
“Well, yeah… I mean no!” Johnny tried to backtrack while his older brother glared at him for voicing such a sentiment. “Well you are the same age as Murdoch aren’t you?”
“Give or take a few months,” Jim replied. “Does that make me such an old man? I’ll have you know, that until Pardee wounded him a few years ago, your father could outwork any hand on his place. And you saw him at the fair two years ago tossing the caber.” Jim gave the young man a warning look. “If I were you, after that incident before he found himself in Blessing, I’d be mighty careful how I refer to your father as ‘old man’.” He turned to leave and, with an affectionate slap on the shoulder for both Lancers, Jim said to the boys, “If I were you I’d be resting up some. I told your father I’d hire you on to help me with the haying in a few weeks. I wouldn’t want you to be all tuckered out and keeling over while trying to keep up with us ‘old men’.” He chuckled at their startled expressions as he climbed into his now fully loaded buckboard and headed out of town.
“Do you think he meant that?” Johnny asked his brother. “That we’re going over there to help with the haying? That’s the worst job that ever was – except for taking care of the outhouses.”
“I’m afraid he did Johnny.” Scott ruefully added, “I think we walked right into a trap set by our father and Mr. Talbot. It’s bound to be hotter than blazes that week.”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Johnny said. “I did it again. I opened my big mouth and now we’re both in for it. Sorry brother.”
“It’s not completely your fault Johnny,” Scott told his brother. “I should have seen the warning signs myself. Mr. Talbot and Murdoch have been chummier than usual lately. And they’ve been awfully quiet when we walk into a room. I should have been suspicious - it was bound to mean that they were plotting something.”
“Yeah, well I reckon we’re both gonna pay for it,” Johnny sighed. Chasing cattle and pulling them out of ditches and bogs and such was bad enough. But haying was the hottest, dustiest and driest work imaginable. And it took days to get the hay stacked and dried and then it had to be bailed and loaded onto a wagon and stored in the loft of the rancher’s or farmer’s barn. No, Johnny was definitely not looking forward to his next visit to the Talbots to lend a helping hand.
Before they left Green River that day Scott had recruited enough men and teenage boys to form a good four teams to play against each other. Each man, or boy, that signed up was told when and where to meet which would be at Lancer in three days time after dinner. It was to be an organizational meeting at which they would form teams, choose captains and elect league officials as well as find a few more men to act as umpires. All in all it had been a very successful trip to town but Johnny still couldn’t get over the fact that Val had agreed to be the umpire for the league. He’d never have thought Val would get involved in the game. It had seemed more likely that Val would scoff or claim to be too busy.
“Gentlemen! If we could have some order please!” Scott shouted to make himself heard above the noise of the crowd gathered in the courtyard of the estancia. More than fifty men had arrived from the three towns and outlying farms and ranches to attend this organizational meeting.
“You’re not gonna get their attention by yelling brother,” Johnny said as he arrived home very late and just in time for the meeting to be starting.
“And just what do you propose I do,” Scott said as he vainly tried again to get everyone’s attention.
“This,” Johnny said simply and fired a shot in the air from the pistol he now held in his hand.
The noise of the crowd abruptly stopped as the sound of the gunshot got everyone’s attention very quickly.
“Scott’s been tryin’ to get your attention for five minutes now! Why don’t you all just quiet down so he can make himself heard huh?”
“I could have done that myself if I’d had my gun.”
“Well you didn’t and I did so that’s that.”
Scott gave his little brother a sour look but all he got in return was a cheeky grin before Johnny went into the house to eat a late supper. He wasn’t sure if he would join the meeting or not. Baseball, to him, sounded silly. A bunch of grown men hitting a ball and running in circles? Where was the fun in that?
Behind Scott, Jim Talbot and Murdoch laughed at the verbal jousting between the brothers. Jim just shook his head. More and more those two reminded him of his own three sons. It was exactly this kind of behavior that made him think what good friends the five boys could have been.
“Listen up you men,” Jim said in the ensuing quiet. “Scott’s got things he needs to go over with us regarding this league. And you ranchers and farmers out there ought to be glad he thought of this baseball league! Aren’t you tired of so many of your hands spending all their time off, and their hard earned money, in the saloons and gambling dens in whatever town they visit?”
“Yeah,” one grizzled old rancher said. “I’ve lost a few men because I’ve had to sack them for getting drunk all the time and slacking off on their work. I’m tired of it and I think we should listen to Scott and see what he has in mind.”
“Thank you, Mr. Fuller,” Scott said. “Now, as I’ve been trying to explain, this baseball league is purely for fun. There’s no profit to be made from it. It’s a chance to blow off some steam without getting into brawls in the saloons or the streets. It’s good exercise and I thought it would be a good way to raise some money for charity. In particular, I thought we might raise some money for the people of Bear Creek. They can use all the help they can get after that fire that burned most of the town. Destroyed half and damaged a good part of the rest.”
“How would we make money playing for fun, Scott?” asked one of the Lancer hands, a young man by the name of Ted Jackson.
“We’d charge a small fee for a seat in the grandstand and I thought maybe some of the ladies – the wives, mothers, sisters and such of the players – would sell refreshments at the games. Lemonade, coffee, cookies and such like. Everyone watching the game is sure to want at least one drink and a couple of cookies to go with it.”
Picking up some slips of paper and dropping them into a bowl on the table in front of him Scott said, “I’ve written everyone’s name down on these slips of paper. Mr. Talbot’s going to draw four names and those four men will be the captains of the teams. The next four names will be substitute umpires for when Sheriff Crawford is unable to fulfill his commitment to the league.”
Jim stepped up to the table and put his right hand into the bowl. The first name he pulled out was Tim O’Connor – one of his own ranch hands. Tim was a young man, about twenty or so who was quite friendly with Teresa. They weren’t serious about each other but they enjoyed each other’s company at the occasional social in town, or a barn dance at a neighboring ranch or farm. Quiet, steady and dependable were words that Jim would use to describe Tim.
The next name was Paul Bass. Paul was the latest in a long line of land agents and realtors in the area. He was, however, much more honorable and honest than Uncle Dan’l Drew whom nobody had any use for. Especially not after the Buttermere affair as Scott referred to it. Claude Buttermere had come to the valley pretending to be a government employee looking for land to settle an extinct Indian tribe on. Scott was the only one who knew that the tribe didn’t exist any more and who Buttermere, really was having rescued the man from a mob that was ready to tar and feather him. Buttermere’s scam had caused Jay McKillen, a somewhat reclusive mountain man, and his son to kidnap Murdoch in an effort to get the money he believed Murdoch owed him for his worthless land. The affair had destroyed the friendship between Murdoch and McKillen – something that saddened Murdoch to this day for he had genuinely liked the man.
Bass was a portly, jovial man in his mid-fifties who prided himself on getting along with all of his neighbors and gave business owners a square deal on buildings they bought or sold. His only fault was the amount of hair tonic he used. He thought that he didn’t look professional if he didn’t slick his hair back and part it in the middle. Johnny liked to tease his brother that Bass was the only man in the area that was more of a dandy than Scott had been when he first arrived in Morro Coyo. Scott made a point of ignoring those particular remarks.
The third name was Dana Simpson. Simpson was a small rancher whose spread was about halfway between Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells. He wasn’t the most popular man in the valley either. In fact, most folks would rate him a close second in nastiness to the Wilson family who had recently departed. Father Pierce and son Mike had been nothing but trouble from the day they settled in Green River after moving north after the war. Mike had recently been convicted of assault and battery, among other charges, and was in prison for a long stretch. Scott had been half beaten to death, or so it seemed to his family and closest friends such as the Talbots, by Mike with a little help from some of his friends who had turned tail and run when Mike pulled a knife. Nobody in Green River and its vicinity was sorry to see them go.
The final name pulled out of the bowl was Scott’s own. Hesitant at first to enter his name since he was the one organizing the league his father, brother and Jim Talbot had convinced him that it was perfect acceptable because it was a random drawing that would determine the outcome.
So the team captains were chosen. Then the substitute umpires. Then came the organizing of the teams. Since every man in the three towns that was interested had their names on those slips of paper it was a simple matter to pull one name at a time and assign him to the first and subsequent teams. Before long they had four teams of players along with some men who preferred to be equipment managers. Each team captain and the substitute umpires were given copies of the rulebook for the Massachusetts version of the game and told to study it. Before the meeting broke up they went over some of the rules.
“’One. The Ball must weigh not less than two, nor more than two and three quarters ounces, avoidupois. It must measure not less than six and a half, nor more than eight and a half inches in circumference and must be covered with leather.’” Scott read. “Two, the Bat must be round, and must not exceed two and a half inches in diameter in the thickest part. It must be made of wood and may be of any length to suit the Striker.”
“’Three. Four Bases or Bounds shall constitute a round; the distance from each base shall be sixty feet.’” Scott looked out over the crowd, “I’ve already laid out a playing field just east of Green River. There’s a large field there that’s unused. I’ve obtained the owner’s permission to use the land for this endeavor.”
“I won’t go over the rest of the rules with you,” he said, “unless you have some questions about them. Mr. Talbot is even more familiar with them than I am and he tells me that he’s played the game, in one form or another, over the years when he could get one going. He’s volunteered to serve on the committee and fill in as a player whenever a team comes up short.”
“Each team is responsible for finding their own practice field or scheduling the use of the field I’ve laid out with Sheriff Crawford who will see to it that every team has a fair chance to get used to it. I think that’s it for now. Team captains will need to consult with their players to set a practice schedule. We’ll plan to have the first game in two weeks if that’s agreeable with everyone.”
The meeting broke up at that point and all the attendees made their way toward mounts and rigs and headed for home. Those going in the same direction discussed the events of the meeting and when to hold practice, as well as where. A small handful of them were somewhat familiar with the game having read the book, newspaper accounts or having seen it played while on active duty or conducting business at a military installation where a game was in progress.
“I think that went well for a first meeting, don’t you?” Scott asked his father and Jim Talbot as he straightened up the table he’d been sitting at during the meeting.
“Yes, it did,” his father agreed.
Jim Talbot added with a chuckle, “Especially after your brother got their attention.”
“That was a little drastic,” Scott said, “but I have to admit it definitely got their attention.”
Jim grinned and said good-night to his neighbors as he mounted his flashy paint, known as Pintauro, and headed for home where his wife Maura would be anxiously awaiting news of what became of Scott’s new endeavor. “Like a mother hen worrying over her chicks,” he often joked to Murdoch when she couldn’t hear him.
It was a tired Scott Lancer that tried to study his team roster the next night. A full day of fence repairs and chasing strays that had gotten through the damaged fence had taken their toll on the blond Lancer son. His father just shook his head as he watched Scott sitting at the dining table, mumbling to himself and continually shaking himself awake. Johnny had opted to play a little poker in the bunkhouse with some of his friends and Teresa was in the kitchen with Maria planning the next day’s meals and checking on what was available for sandwiches for the boys to take with them the next day.
After about an hour and a half, in which time Scott dozed off over his paperwork half a dozen times, Murdoch finally took it upon himself to rouse his son and steer him in the direction of his bedroom.
“Scott. Scott,” Murdoch said his big hand reaching out and giving him a gentle shake. “Son? I think you better just give up on that for tonight and go to bed. You’ve studied that same piece of paper for over an hour and you haven’t come to any conclusions.” Scott looked up at his father with a bleary expression. “Take the paper with you tomorrow, and some pencils, and work out your lineup, as you called it, during your lunch break.”
“Good idea, sir,” Scott said as he yawned. “I am kind of tired. Good night.”
“Good night,” Murdoch replied as Scott made his way out of the room and toward the stairs.
Half an hour after Scott climbed the stairs to his room Johnny came in. His eyes were a bit bloodshot from the smoke in the bunkhouse but he had the look of the proverbial cat that swallowed the canary.
“Looks like you had a good night,” his father commented with upraised eyebrow. “How much did you win and who did you break that I’m going to have to give an advance to?”
“Twenty bucks and Frank’s the only one who stuck it out. Cipriano called it quits after the first hand and most of the others only lasted two or three. Frank, though, he just didn’t want to give in and he kept playing until I had every penny he had left. But you don’t have to advance him anything. I already did.” Johnny grinned, “Next time he won’t be so eager to play me and he might hang onto some of his money.”
“I can imagine,” his father said dryly. “I don’t know about you son but I’m headed off to bed. Your brother retired half an hour ago. He kept nodding off while working on his team roster for the baseball league.”
“Scott works real hard Murdoch,” Johnny said. “I have to admit that sometimes I worry about him. He had a bad year last year with the influenza and pneumonia and then that cold. Not to mention the broken arm and the beating Mike Wilson gave him. But there’s no slowing that brother of mine down once he sets his mind to doing something.”
“You’re right about that Johnny,” Murdoch agreed. “But Sam said Scott has completely recovered from everything he had and he hasn’t been sick in nearly six months now. I don’t think there’s any cause for concern. But if it makes you feel better we’ll all keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn’t overdo it.”
The two men, father and son, headed toward the stairs together. Not long after Scott had gone to bed Teresa, too, had retired and Maria had left for her little home down the road from the main house. She would be back early to begin breakfast preparations. Johnny and Murdoch parted company at the door to Johnny’s room. Murdoch, unable to resist checking on his elder son, quietly opened Scott’s door, and found him curled up on his right side facing toward the opposite door, sound asleep. He smiled at the sight and then quietly backed out of the room and closed the door before continuing on to his own room.
“There! I think I’ve finally got it,” Scott said.
“Got what brother?” Johnny asked as they sat under a wide, spreading oak tree eating their lunch two days later.
“The team rosters I was working on the other night. I finally figured out who I want to try out in what position.”
“You could show a little enthusiasm or support brother,” Scott said slightly irritated at Johnny’s reaction.
“Sorry Scott but I just don’t see no sense in a bunch of grown men hitting a ball and running in circles.”
“There’s more to it than that Johnny,” his brother said.
“Maybe,” Johnny shrugged. “I know there’s a lot of rules and such – I heard you talkin’ the other night. But to me it’s just a bunch of men acting like little kids. I just don’t get it.”
“You should try out for one of the teams Johnny,” Scott urged his brother. “Maybe you’ll understand it better if you play.”
“Nah. I think I’ll just watch you and the others. Mr. Talbot can take my place if he really wants to play as much as he says he does.”
“Well, ok,” Scott said. “But I hope you’ll change your mind later. At least let me put you in as a substitute.”
“If it makes you happy brother,” Johnny said with a grimace.
“Good. Now let’s finish our lunch and get back to work. If we get done early enough maybe we can sneak off into town tonight and have a couple of beers and relieve our esteemed sheriff of some of his hard earned money in a poker game.”
“Now that is the best idea I’ve heard come out of your mouth all week!” Johnny grinned. “And I happen to know that Val has been hoarding a couple of month’s pay so he should be ripe for the picking.”
Johnny was right. By the time the brothers had left Green River for Lancer they had, between them, taken Val for most of the money he had saved. Ruing the day he ever met those two Val left the poker game and headed off to make one last round of the town before hitting the sack and letting his new deputy take over for the night.
Johnny and Scott both swallowed their laughter until they were safely out of town. Val was in such a sour mood over his loss that they figured he would probably toss them in jail on trumped up charges just to get even with them if he heard it.
“What’re you two grinnin’ about?” asked grizzled Jelly Hoskins, all around handyman at Lancer and somewhat of a surrogate father/grandfather/kindly old uncle figure to the two boys.
“We just took our beloved Sheriff Crawford for practically all the money he had saved up over the last two months,” Scott said as he and his brother led their horses into the barn and began unsaddling them.
“Oh? What’d you do – deal seconds?” Jelly scoffed.
“Now Jelly, you know we would never, ever presume to deal seconds while playing cards with Val,” Johnny said with a wink at his brother who hid his face so Jelly wouldn’t see him grinning. “We save that honor for you.”
“Why you…” Jelly took a swing at Johnny with his ever-present soft cap, which the younger man quite easily avoided as he and his brother both burst into laughter.
“Get outta here,” Jelly groused. “I’ll take care of them horses. You two get on in to bed.”
“Thanks Jelly,” Johnny said easily giving over the care of Barranca to the old man. “Come on Scott. You heard the man. We youngsters need our sleep, unlike some old men I could name. No amount of ‘beauty rest’ will help him.”
This elicited another round of grumbling and threats from Jelly and a burst of laughter from Scott. Both boys were practically falling over as they laughed their way back to the house. They were still laughing when they entered the house and hung up their hats and jackets. Scott removed his gun belt and hung it on one of the hooks by the door but Johnny kept his on. Even after several years back home at Lancer he found some habits hard to break. One of them was having his rig near him when he slept.
“What on earth is going on down there?” their father bellowed from the top of the stairs.
“Oh, nothing Murdoch,” Scott said. “Sorry if we disturbed you. My brother, here, decided to imply to Jelly that we deal seconds when we play poker with him and that Jelly needs more beauty rest than we do only it won’t do him any good.”
“Hmm,” Murdoch said as he rubbed his thumb over the lower part of his face. “I can’t imagine that set too well with him.”
“No, sir, it didn’t,” Scott said before bursting into laughter again.
“He’ll get over it,” Johnny said with a grin. “He’s used to us giving him a hard time like that. He’s so ‘mad’ that he’s taking care of our horses. Seems to think we’re little kids who need a lot of sleep.”
“I don’t know about that,” Murdoch said with a faint grin of his own, “but it is late and you do have work to do tomorrow. By the way how did Val make out in the poker game?”
“Lost his shirt,” Johnny said with a gleam in his eye. “Lost all but twenty dollars of what he had saved up to me and Scott. I think it’ll be a while before he plays cards with us again.”
Murdoch just shook his head and went back to his room to retire for the night. Teresa was already asleep – the boys hadn’t disturbed her for which they were glad. It wasn’t long before Scott and Johnny had crawled between the covers on their beds and were sound asleep. Their sleep was helped by the beers they had had while playing cards in Green River. Both fell asleep with visions of a frustrated and disgusted Val Crawford throwing his cards down on the table as he realized he’d lost the fourth or fifth hand that night. It made for very pleasant dreams for both Lancer sons.
“Gentlemen, settle down please,” Scott said to the group that would be his team. “We have business to conduct if we’re ever going to get around to competing.” When everyone finally was paying attention he continued, “We need to decide on a name for the team and try out for positions.”
“I have a suggestion,” said Mark Ferguson, a tall, lanky redhead that worked for the Lancers.
“What might that be Mark?” Scott asked the young man.
“Why don’t we call ourselves the Mustangs?”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Scott said with a smile. “Any other suggestions?”
“Yeah,” Hank Anderson piped up. “How about the Broncos instead?”
“That’s also a good idea,” Scott replied. “Are there any other suggestions?”
“I got one for ya brother,” Johnny said with a gleam in his eye which should have forewarned his brother that something potentially silly was coming.
“I know I’m going to regret this,” Scott said, “but I’ll ask anyway. What is your suggestion Johnny?”
“Why not call ourselves the MCs?”
“Yeah. MC for Mangy Coyotes. You all make enough noise for a whole pack of them.”
Scott just rolled his eyes and turned his back on his grinning brother. “I presume nobody else likes that name so let’s vote for the one we like the best. All in favor of calling ourselves the Mustangs raise your hands.” Six hands went up including Scott’s after a moment’s thought. “All right. Now raise your hand if you’re in favor of calling ourselves the Broncos.” Five hands went up. “Six to five in favor of the Mustangs. And since my father has graciously….”
“You mean you twisted his arm to get him to agree to it,” Johnny gibed.
“To sponsor our team,” Scott said with a glare at his younger brother that met with one of Johnny’s cheekiest grins, “we’ll be known as the Lancer Mustangs.”
“What does the sponsor do Scott?” asked Mark Ferguson.
“In this case Murdoch has donated land for us to practice on and will pay for uniforms and equipment. I’ve already put in an order for some bats and balls. Teresa and Maria are making uniform shirts for us. Now that we have a name they’ll know what to put on the front of the shirts."
She and Maria were planning on cutting letters out of the green felt that they’d gotten at Baldomero’s General Store. The team colors would be tan and black as befit the name of the team. Cipriano’s nephew, Felipe Montoya, had already been approached about drawing the block letters and the team emblem when one had been decided upon. The seventeen-year-old was a talented artist who could be seen drawing, sketching and painting when he wasn’t busy with the horses, cattle or other chores he was responsible for. Knowing of the youth’s talent Scott had recruited him to draw simple outlines and block letters to be used as the pattern.
This done Scott gathered up the trio of bats that he had and the balls that he had sent for months earlier when the inspiration for a baseball league had struck him. The group meandered out toward the seldom-used pasture south of the house and outbuildings. The ranch’s collie dog, Lady Sweet Friend, accompanied them. Lady truly believed that she belonged to Johnny - and Johnny alone. Scott had become fond of her, but not in the same way as Johnny. Lady had driven off some men who had attacked him in Green River not so very long ago, endearing herself to him but he wasn’t apt to get down on the ground or the floor and roughhouse with her the way Johnny did.
Batting practice and tryouts for the different positions were great fun for Lady. She spent the next two hours racing around in the outfield retrieving balls that the players missed. Scott was irritated at first but, until the shipment he had sent for arrived, he needed to save the few balls he had. Lady’s game became the one way he was guaranteed to get his balls back for the collie never missed finding them when the players couldn’t. Her antics delighted Johnny and several of the other younger players. A couple of middle-aged men, in their fifties, that had joined the team were not as pleased but Lady paid them no mind. As long as Johnny and Scott were around nobody was going to do anything to her. Johnny still hadn’t agreed to play for real but he did have some fun knocking the ball around a little.
It was finally settled that Scott would play first base. He had a longer reach than some of the men trying out and the courage to withstand the runner trying to knock him out of the way. Of course, according to his brother, courage had nothing to do with it. Scott was just too stubborn to give in, just like their father. Mark Ferguson would play second base. Hank Anderson wound up with third base. Rafael Mendoza would be the shortstop. Smaller and quicker than many of the others who were trying out for the teams, he had successfully picked up and relayed virtually every ball that was hit in his direction. Scott was very pleased with the young man’s efforts and told him so. Pete Wilkins wound up in left field, David Manning in center field and Paul McGovern in right field. All of them were far ranging as the situation called for it. Noah Greene would be the Catcher and tall, husky Jamie Nixon would be their Pitcher.
Johnny, Miguel Ortiz, Tom Dugan, Bob Reilly, Michael Flannigan and Jose Montoya, who was Felipe’s older brother, would be the back up players although Johnny had not yet consented to playing. He still had mixed feelings about this but wanted to support his brother by at least being there for him. Scott decided, silently, that he would keep his little brother on tap for a back up shortstop. It seemed the perfect position for Johnny to play.
“We’ll meet again tomorrow night around six,” Scott said. “If for any reason you can’t get away to be here please try to let me know so we don’t hold up practice. Our first game is in one week and we need to practice so that we work together well as a team. That’s it. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
As the others left Scott and Johnny hunted around for the equipment they’d been using. The stakes marking the bases were all in place, though it seemed that one of two of them were a little loose but they could only find four of the five balls that they’d been using. They weren’t getting very far in their search when Lady, her plume of a tail wagging, trotted up to Johnny with the last ball in her mouth. She dropped it at his feet and looked up expectantly at the brothers.
“Lady, you scamp, you,” Scott laughed in spite of being slightly annoyed. “No wonder we couldn’t find the last ball!”
“Aw Scott,” Johnny said. “She was just playing. She loves to play ball!”
Both brothers gave Lady a pat though Johnny’s was much more enthusiastic as he tugged gently at her ears and just as gently pounded her ribs. Lady, in return, gave Johnny a good face washing with her tongue.
“And you’re as much of a scamp as she is!” Scott declared ruffling his brother’s hair when Johnny, for once, failed to duck.
This started a mock wrestling match between the brothers with Lady trying to get in between them and defend the younger of the two. The boys couldn’t stop laughing long enough to stop her from interfering or to do any real damage to each other. Scott had been referring to the fact that he had witnessed his brother throwing the balls for Lady to retrieve when he thought no one was watching. Thus ended their night as they rode toward the barn to put their horses up for the remainder of the evening.
Lady, after circling the barn and the immediate vicinity of all the buildings near the house, would spend the night curled up on a blanket on the floor in Johnny’s room as she always did. Much as her grandmother, Patty Pat, had done when Johnny was a baby, she was watching over him as he slept. Unless, of course, Scott “bribed” her into keeping quiet while he pulled a sneaky trick on his brother.
“Scott, can you come here for a minute?” Teresa called her “brother”.
“What is it Teresa?” Scott had just come in from a full day of fence mending. A few barbed wire gouges later all he wanted was to eat and relax a little bit before heading out for the latest practice session.
Holding up a soft, tan colored flannel jersey, which was styled similar to the jerseys worn by volunteer firemen in other parts of the country, she said, “I want you to try on your uniform shirt. I think I got it right but I need to see it on you before I’ll know for sure if I need to take it in or let it out a little.”
“All right,” Scott agreed. He was anxious to find that out for himself. More importantly was getting Johnny to agree to wear one and to play.
Scott took off the beige work shirt he was already wearing and quickly tried on the uniform shirt. Teresa eyed her handiwork critically tugging here and there to be sure that the sleeves were sitting properly and that Scott had the shirt in place correctly. Not that she needed to worry for Scott, though not vain, was precise in most everything he did and that included dressing. Not for nothing was he a wealthy socialite’s grandson and an ex-army officer. It had been drilled into him from the time he was a child to be sure that all buttons were fastened, sleeves were pulled up or down as need be and that shirt tails were properly tucked in.
“Yes, I think that will do,” the little brunette said. “What do you think Maria?” she asked the matronly housekeeper who was working with her on the uniforms.
“Sí, I think it fits fine,” Maria agreed. “Now let us see how el caballo will look.” She picked up a black horse head that Felipe had made the pattern for and held it against Scott’s shirt in the center of the shield.
“That’s it exactly Maria,” Teresa said as she picked up a half dozen pins to fasten it in place.
“Hey! Watch it with those things!” Scott protested.
“Keep still Scott,” Teresa scolded as he tried to back away. “I have to pin the mustang’s head in place so we’ll know where to sew it on your shirt. Stop being such a baby!”
“Yeah, Scott, stop being such a baby,” Johnny echoed as he came in the room.
“You’re next Johnny,” Teresa told him, “so don’t disappear.”
“I ain’t said I’m gonna play yet,” Johnny protested.
“You will, you know you will,” his foster sister told him. “You’ll do it because Scott asked you to if for no other reason. Besides it’s for a good cause and you always pitch in when something’s being done for a good cause. Helping those people in Bear Creek rebuild their homes and businesses is exactly the kind of cause you always get involved in.”
“Maybe so,” Johnny said. “But I choose the cause and the way I help out. Playing kids’ games ain’t necessarily my idea of helping. I’d rather go on up there and help build new houses.”
“You’re impossible!” Teresa exclaimed. “Scott’s playing and I hear there are a lot of older men from the area that are going to play. They don’t think it’s silly.”
Arguing did no good. Johnny just restated that he was listed as a backup and that was all he was going to commit to right now.
“He’s so stubborn!” Teresa said in disgust. “You and I both know that helping the people of Bear Creek is exactly the kind of thing he enjoys doing. Why can’t he admit it?”
“It’s not that part that bothers him, Teresa,” Scott said. “He just has it in his head that playing games isn’t the way to do it. At least he let me put him down as a back up and he does come to the practices – well most of them anyway.”
“Well, I think he’s being silly!” Teresa turned back to the older of her two “brothers”. “Now where were we before Johnny so rudely interrupted us?”
“You and Maria were about to let me go so that you could get dinner on the table. I need to get cleaned up so that I can enjoy the sumptuous repast I know you’re going to serve us so that I have the energy to get through practice tonight. Our first game is less than a week away and we have a lot of work to do if we’re going to be ready.”
“We were, were we?” Teresa scoffed. “I think you just don’t trust us with these pins. You’re turning into a big baby.”
“I am not!” Scott protested. “But I am tired and hungry and I would very much like to relax for a little while before heading out to practice. Is that so much to ask?”
“What do you think, Maria?” Teresa asked the matronly housekeeper who was standing nearby listening to the exchange between the siblings with a smile on her round face.
“I think Señor Scott is right, chica,” she said. “It is late and the patron will be home soon from town. He will be much upset if dinner is not ready when he returns. We can finish the uniforms tomorrow. I will speak to Cipriano about having Jose and the others come in for their fittings mañana. We will have them done soon enough. Now help me pick up this table so that it can be set. Then I will see that the stew is hot and that there are plenty of biscuits even for Juanito. I don’t know where that niño puts all that food he eats! He never gains any weight – any more than his hermano.”
Clucking to herself Maria started folding the shirts that were nearly finished. Teresa folded Scott’s, which he handed to her after changing back to his original shirt, and started collecting pins and scraps of material. All were gathered and placed in the sewing baskets the two women were using to keep things together.
Dinner that night was beef stew, fresh bread, coffee and milk and, for dessert, peach cobbler made from peaches Teresa had procured from a neighbor who raised them. Johnny and Scott each had two helpings of the stew before tackling dessert. Maria, for her part, was quite pleased as she felt that Scott was far too skinny and needed to put weight on. Juanito, on the other hand, was noted for his healthy appetite – especially when it came to her freshly made tortillas and tamales.
Once dinner was over the boys headed for the south pasture where their team would meet for practice. As Scott had stated there was less than a week until their first game. They needed all the practice they could get. He’d recruited a few of the ranch hands that were not on any team to play a scrimmage game with them so that the real team could get the feel of competing against someone.
Scott loosened up by shrugging his shoulders and leaning over to touch his toes. The others on his team did similar things to limber up. Johnny, with Lady by his side, just sat there watching them with a grin on his face. He was going to enjoy watching this.
“Is everyone ready now?” Scott asked. When all answered in the affirmative they each took their respective positions on the field. “Cipriano, let’s see what your crew can do about making my team work on their fielding.”
“Sí Señor Scott,” the big Segundo said. “Miguel, you first.”
Miguel Tejada stepped up to home base with one of the bats in his hand. The first thing Scott noticed was that Miguel was holding the bat the wrong way so he motioned to Cipriano who walked over to the younger man and showed him what Scott was saying. The big Mexican had been quietly observing Scott and his practice sessions and was well aware of how the equipment should be handled. He’d also picked up on the rules of the game by listening each time Scott explained them to the players.
“This way, chico,” he said to Miguel as he turned the bat right side up. When he had finished explaining, in Spanish for Miguel struggled with his English yet, he backed away.
Husky Jamie Nixon wound up and threw the ball toward home plate. Miguel took a mighty swing and spun himself around in the process causing Johnny to collapse in a paroxysm of laughter and hooting in Spanish. Miguel, embarrassed stood up and tried again as Noah Greene, the Catcher, threw the ball back to Nixon.
The second time Miguel hit the ball straight up in the air and Noah caught it as it came back down. First out recorded. Now it was Joe Englender’s turn. He knew how to hold the bat and he had a pretty good eye for where the ball was going to come across the home base. He managed to hit it hard enough that it got past both the Second Baseman, Mark Ferguson, and the short stop, Rafael Mendoza. It rolled into center field and Joe made it safely to first base stopping there when the center fielder, David Manning, picked it up.
The next batter managed to hit it in the same general direction as Joe did but he found running in boots to be difficult and was thrown out at first base. The next two batters had varying degrees of success but it was apparent to Scott, once his team was at bat, that something would have to be done about the footwear issue. They wouldn’t be very good players if they had to continue wearing their boots as part of their uniform. He’d speak to Murdoch when practice was over and see if he couldn’t get him, as sponsor of the team, to order stockings and shoes for the team. He’d discussed their wearing uniform pants too but the men were uncomfortable with the idea of knickers or pantaloons. They much preferred wearing their comfortable old jeans that they worked in all the time. Scott was sorely tempted, and would give into that temptation, to buy a complete uniform – that is pants, stockings, shoes and cap – in order to show them how professional they could look. But he would definitely not order knickers. He could hear Johnny now if he bought knickers. Scott was sure that the whole valley would hear Johnny laughing if Scott came out wearing knickers for his uniforms pants. He’d never hear the end of it. It would be worse than the excitement over the plaid pants he’d been wearing the day he arrived in Morro Coyo. He could definitely live without that.
“Instead of laughing at them little brother,” Scott said in an exasperated tone as Johnny sat there watching, “why don’t you get up and show them how you’d do it.”
“Nah, I don’t think so,” Johnny said. “It’s much more fun watching all of you.” Turning to Lady who was lying beside him he said, “Don’t you agree Lady?”
Lady raised her head to look at her favorite brother and gave one short “woof” as if agreeing with him before lying back down again.
“See there?” Johnny said. “Lady agrees. We’re enjoying ourselves just watching.”
Aggravated Scott walked away to confer with his players on what they were doing right and what they needed to work on. A lot of it was timing and speed and learning to judge where the ball really was.
When practice was over for the night Scott went around gathering up his team’s equipment. This time he found that the stakes that marked the bases were coming loose again and he was missing a bat as well as a couple of balls. The balls had last been seen in the tall grass behind the outfield area. It was then that Jelly appeared on the scene and made his displeasure at what he deemed Scott’s carelessness known.
“Boy you need someone to look after your equipment there or you’re gonna be losing it and never find it,” the grizzled old handyman said to the blond Lancer.
“I know that Jelly. I try to get the men to keep everything together but they just don’t seem to care.” Looking at the old man with a little bit of a twinkle in his eye he added, “I don’t suppose you’d like the job, would you? You could be our equipment manager and make sure that we know where are bats and balls are at all times. I really could use you Jelly.” With a big grin he added the icing to the cake when he said, “You’d be perfect. I’d never have to worry about where our equipment was as long as you’re in charge.”
Johnny, sitting on the sidelines, stifled his laughter when he heard this. Poor old Jelly was being set up and didn’t know it. In less than a heartbeat Jelly found himself volunteering with pleasure. The next thing he knew Scott was pointing him in the direction of the tall grass and telling him to “hop to it” and find the missing balls and bat or he’d be out of a job quicker than he had landed it.
With a lot of grumbling about “young whippersnappers” Jelly went out into the tall grass and started his search. By the time daylight had completely faded he’d found them all and was headed toward the barn to find an empty feed sack to keep them all in. Strangely enough Scott, who was usually very organized and prepared, had not thought to do that himself. It just made the old handyman even more convinced about how indispensable he was now, and would be later, to the team.
The brothers walked back to the house with Lady prancing along beside Johnny. When Murdoch asked how practice had gone Scott merely said “We’ll be ready” while Johnny snickered at the memory of Miguel’s at bat. Murdoch raised his eyebrows at this but didn’t push for a better answer – he could see that a mini war could erupt if he did.
“That’s good,” he said. “You boys headed for bed now?”
“Yes, I think so,” Scott said. “I want to get done early tomorrow and have one last practice session with the men that aren’t playing regularly. I think we’re just about ready for our first game so we’ll practice once more and then I’ll give them a couple of days off. After that we’ll have one practice session and the first game is the next night.”
In the end it would seem that Scott was wise in giving his team a couple of days to relax. A severe rainstorm wreaked havoc on the immediate vicinity with many downed tree limbs – some of which blocked the streams and clogged waterholes and it took all of the men’s time to locate and relieve the source of the troubles, not to mention locating and returning spooked cattle to the areas they were supposed to be in. It took two days for the men to unwind again after that and they were more than ready to play ball to help blow off some of the steam from the frustrating work.
It was a well-rested team that played their first game four nights later against Jim Talbot’s team from the Bar T with young Tim O’Connor at the helm. Jim himself was the sponsor much as Murdoch was the sponsor of the Mustangs. The Bar T crew had decided to call themselves the Pilgrims in honor of their boss’ roots in Massachusetts.
Val Crawford was there, at the field where the rodeo had been held not so very long ago now being used as a baseball diamond, to umpire the game. Val had been reading the rulebook since the day Scott gave it to him and thought he had it pretty well memorized. He kept it in his pocket, or close by, in case he needed to refer to it.
“Play ball,” Val yelled at precisely seven o’clock that night.
The Bar T team had won the coin toss and would bat first. Scott’s Mustangs took the field and the game got underway.
The first batter was Captain Tim himself. After watching a couple of balls fly past him, which were called balls by the lawman cum umpire, he took a mighty swing at the next ball that Nixon threw toward home plate. He made solid contact and the ball flew to center field where it landed for a base hit. David Manning scooped it up and threw it to the Second Baseman who returned it to Nixon. Play resumed with the Pilgrim’s Paul Watson at bat. Watson, a tall blond about the same age as Johnny, was playing second base. He too managed to get a base hit but it was only because the ball was just out of the reach of the Mustang’s shortstop Mendoza. McGovern, the right fielder, retrieved it and sent it back to the shortstop, who returned it to the Pitcher. The Pilgrims now had men on first and second base. Scott refused to worry though. It was only the first inning and they had plenty of time to catch up.
The third and fourth batters for the Bar T team struck out. When Mangum, the fourth batter, tried to argue Val threatened to throw him out of the game. The referees on other parts of the field agreed with Val thus ending the argument – for now anyway.
The fifth, and final batter of the inning for the Pilgrims made solid contact but the ball flew directly at Pete Wilkins in left field who caught it easily thus ending that half of the inning. The Mustangs were ready to take their turn at bat and quickly cleared the field to gather around Jelly who was taking care of their bats. Johnny sat nearby watching with Lady by his side. The talleymen, or scorekeepers, were the Green River Banker George Hunter, Tim Pittman’s father and Reverend Hawk who had led the sunrise service at Lancer the year they sponsored the Easter Egg Hunt and Scott had broken his arm in a horseback riding accident. A large chalkboard had been borrowed from the school to use for keeping score.
The rules, as Scott had read them, stated that there must be no less than ten players on a team nor more than fourteen. They didn’t state that each player must have a position on the field. Each team had the maximum number of players, fourteen, for this first game. As time went on the numbers would fluctuate due to other commitments or injuries to players.
Johnny, who still hadn’t consented to play, had a pad of paper on his lap and a pencil stuck behind his ear, in much the same manner as he had seen his brother do when working on the books. He was entertaining himself by keeping score and watching each player’s performance. He might not have wanted to play, but he wasn’t going to let his brother be embarrassed by poor performances. One thing he was blessed with was excellent eyesight so he was making notes of what he thought each player was doing right and what they were doing wrong. Then, when the game was over, he’d give those notes to Scott to do with as he pleased.
The first batter for the Lancer Mustangs was Pete Wilkins. Wilkins was thirty, an inch taller than Scott’s six-foot-one with brown wavy hair and brown eyes that generally twinkled with good humor. He strode confidently to the stake that passed for home plate and waited for the hurler to send the first ball his way. It came and he let it pass him by. Val called it a strike. Pete gave him a funny look but didn’t argue with him – he thought it had been rather low and close to the ground. The second ball came right down the middle but Pete didn’t make good contact with it and it dropped right at the feet of the Pilgrims shortstop who threw him out at first base despite the speed he had.
Johnny was as disappointed as his brother was. He was still sitting there watching and taking notes when a woman’s voice asked, “Would you care to buy some lemonade Johnny?”
Looking up from his seat on the ground Johnny saw Maura Talbot, the petite redheaded Irishwoman married to their neighbor Jim. Maura was like a surrogate mother to all three of the young Lancers, including Teresa who’s mother had abandoned her and her husband when Teresa was quite young. The Talbots’ three sons had all perished in the war and Maura had been thrilled when Murdoch was finally able to locate his long lost sons and bring them home to Lancer where they belonged. She had been present when Johnny was born and had known Catherine, Scott’s mother, briefly, before she was sent away for her protection during the earlier raids in the valley. The two women had bonded almost instantly and Maura was devastated when she learned of Catherine’s death and Harlan Garrett’s subsequent kidnapping – for that was how she thought of it – of his grandson before Murdoch was able to reach Carterville.
“Hey, Mrs. Talbot!” Johnny grinned up at her. “Sure I’d like some lemonade but how come I have to pay for it?”
“You know perfectly well Johnny Lancer,” Maura scolded, “that we are selling the refreshments to help raise money for the fund Scott set up to help the people of Bear Creek! So you can just hand over ten cents for the lemonade and a quarter for the half dozen cookies I saved for you out of my last batch of sugar cookies. It’s such a warm night that everyone wants a cool drink and something to go with it.”
“I was only kidding,” Johnny said with another one of his cheeky grins. “I know we’re doin’ this to raise money.”
“Then hand over your money, boy,” Maura said with a smile of her own, “and I’ll give you your drink and the cookies.”
“Yes ma’am,” Johnny said with a chuckle as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the proper coinage.
“Thank you dear,” Maura said as she tucked the coins into an envelope she was carrying on the tray laden with glasses of lemonade and a plate of cookies. “I must be on my way now and see if anyone else wants something. Bring your glass over to the stand where Teresa and Mary Donovan are when you’re through. They’re washing them and refilling them when the girls who are selling come back for more or a customer comes to the stand instead of us going to them.”
With a swish of her dark brown skirt and the petticoat underneath it she walked away from Johnny and approached the players who were waiting for their turn at bat. Scott paid for two glasses of lemonade and drank them down quickly despite Maura’s warning that he shouldn’t drink a cold drink so fast when he was hot.
“Thank you, Mrs. Talbot,” Scott said as he replaced the glass on her tray. “That was delicious. And so were the cookies.” With a grin he asked, “How did you manage to keep my little brother from getting them all?”
“That was easy,” Maura laughed. “I kept a half dozen hidden just for you. I knew they wouldn’t last long once your brother saw them.” With a slight frown she asked Scott, “Speaking of your brother – why isn’t he playing?”
“He says he doesn’t want to,” Scott explained. “He thinks it’s too childish and very emphatically stated that he wasn’t interested in making a fool of himself chasing after a ball with a big stick as he calls it. He agreed to be a backup player in case I need him though. Maybe he’ll agree to play later when he sees how much the others are enjoying it.”
“That brother of yours,” Maura shook her head. “He does get some strange notions in his head sometimes.” Smiling at Scott and the other players who had returned their empty glasses she said, “I must be getting these glasses back to the refreshment stand so the girls can wash and dry them. We don’t have all that many glasses and it’s quite warm tonight. Everyone seems to be thirsty.”
“I’ll talk to you later, Mrs. Talbot,” Scott said as a cheer went up from those who were supporting his team. Chunky Noah Greene, the Catcher, had just hit the ball hard enough to get him safely to second base and brought in the two previous batters from their respective positions at second and third base. “I’m up next.”
“Of course dear,” she said with a big smile. “Just try not to do too much damage to Alex’s team hmm? I don’t think I could bear to see a grown man cry if they lose.”
Taking his leave of his surrogate mother Scott strode confidently, head held high, to the plate. Once there he put his chosen bat down on the ground while he pulled on his leather gloves. Ensuring that they were fitting snugly on each finger of both hands, and that they were pulled back to his wrist, as they ought to be, he bent down, picked up his bat, squared his stance put the bat just over his right shoulder and faced the Pitcher. From that moment he was perfectly still until he saw the pitch he wanted. He was a study in concentration as he watched Curry’s every move and tuned out everything else around him except for Umpire Crawford.
“Ball one!” called Val as the ball made its way from the pitcher’s mound.
The Pilgrims’ Pitcher wound up and threw the second ball toward home base.
Scott gave Val a disbelieving look. He felt that the ball was a bit high. Val just stared back at him so Scott turned his attention back to the game.
The third pitch was low for a ball as was the fourth. That made the count three balls and one strike. Scott swung at the fifth ball and missed, prompting Johnny to hoot and say, “That’s showin’ ‘em big brother!” Scott just glared at him and turned his attention back to the Pitcher.
When the sixth pitch came toward him Scott connected solidly and sent it flying over the heads of the Pitcher, Second Baseman and the center fielder. It landed some ten feet beyond their position scoring the man that was on base and Scott himself. The score now stood at four to nothing. Johnny cheered as loudly as anybody else. It was his brother’s team after all and he was going to support him even if he didn’t really want to play.
“How’s it going?” Murdoch, who had been delayed, asked Johnny.
“Scott’s team is up four to nothing right now,” Johnny replied.
Rafael Mendoza who hit a soft grounder back to the pitcher’s mound and was thrown out at first base followed Scott, as his father sat on the ground next to his brother. Pete Wilkins was the next batter and he struck out looking.
The Lancer Mustangs replaced the Bar T Pilgrims on the field and the game continued. The first three Pilgrims to bat reached base safely and the fourth batter hit a line drive single that landed between the center fielder and his right fielder teammate. One run scored making the score four to one.
Tim O’Connor was once again at bat. He managed to hit one past the Third Baseman but it went foul and he had to return to home base to start all over again. Two more balls came to him and he missed both of them. Finally he managed to get a decent hit but it went directly to the right fielder who threw him out at first ending the inning.
Jim Talbot, seeing the late arrival of his friend, came over to join the two Lancer men and enjoy the game.
“What kept you so late Murdoch?” Jim asked.
“A messenger from the bank in Spanish Wells,” Murdoch replied. “Seems they made a mistake on our last deposit. The manager found that there was two hundred dollar error on their end. The deposit slip was made out for five hundred but somebody misread the five for a three and that’s how it was deposited. He sent a messenger out with a letter of explanation for me.” Shaking his head he added, “Sometimes I wonder why I do business with that bank. I get to thinking that I should switch to Green River for all my banking.”
“Why don’t you then?” Johnny asked.
“Because the man who founded the bank in Spanish Wells is the one who granted me my first loan when I bought the ranch. He’s always been good to us and I like to reciprocate wherever possible.”
“If they make many more mistakes like that, my friend,” Jim said with a note of warning in his voice, “I’ll be very disappointed in you if you don’t switch. You know the bank in Green River is good. They give good rates and they don’t overcharge you with their fees.”
“Can’t you two get together without business?” Maura scolded them as she came up with another tray of lemonade and cookies. “You’re here to enjoy a game and help raise money for some needy people.”
“Yes, dear,” Jim said with a wink at Murdoch. “You’re right dear. Of course, we should be ashamed of ourselves.”
“Oh, you…” Maura said in exasperation knowing that he was teasing her. “You’re awful!”
Both men laughed and turned their attention back to the game. The Mustangs were up again and Hank Anderson was at bat. He swung three times and missed prompting groans from some of the spectators as he struck out.
The game went on for another couple of hours before it became too dark to see and the Mustangs finally won 21 – 19. For the sake of expediency the league officials had decided to modify the rules slightly as scoring one hundred tallies would take far too long. One of them had read somewhere that the rules were being modified every year anyway so it wouldn’t make any difference if they modified that one rule. It seemed that the Knickerbocker rules stated that the first team to score twenty-one tallies would be the winners so that was what both teams agreed to. They were, after all, mostly working cowboys who had to get to bed early in order to be up by sunrise.
The next couple of days found Scott working hard at his normal ranch work. There were a couple of miles of fence line that needed repair, a small herd to be moved and hay to store in the barn.
He and Johnny worked side by side to perform these tasks in order to be done in time for an early supper and practice in the south pasture. The Mustangs’ next game was on Wednesday night. They would be playing Dana Simpson’s team the Coyotes.
That night, Noah Greene, the Catcher was sick with a stomachache. Sam Jenkins, the local doctor, said it wasn’t anything serious but that Scott would be smart to have someone take his place for this game. Jose Montoya had been the second best at tryouts for that position so he took the position for that game. It wouldn’t be the last time he played for he would prove to be an outstanding Catcher and Scott would be able to switch off on his catchers every few games.
The game was held at a field on the edge of Spanish Wells. Sheriff Gabe had coordinated with Val for the use of the field for that night’s contest and was on the sidelines observing in between circuits of the town. He was enjoying the game itself and enjoyed watching Val act as umpire. But he had to admit that Val was a good one – nobody got away with anything with him.
The Coyotes were, as Johnny put it, “a mangy looking bunch”. Their Pitcher was all of six feet four and well over two hundred pounds. The balls he threw flew hard and fast from the pitcher’s box to the plate and several strikers, as the batters were called according to the rule book, had to jump back out of the way before they got hit. Val warned the man several times before he finally, seemingly settled down. Johnny wasn’t so sure the man threw those pitches in that manner by accident and decided that the Coyotes were a team that would need to be watched – closely. Dana Simpson was their captain and the man had a reputation for being greedy and nasty. The former gunfighter was not going to let anything happen to his brother or his teammates because of unfair practices within the scope of the game.
“Hey Scott,” Johnny said to his brother as the blond pulled on his gloves prepatory to taking his turn at bat. “Watch out for that Pitcher – Curry.”
“What about him?”
“He’s got a nasty habit of trying to pick the hitters off. I’ve been watching him. If he gets a big smile on his face he’s about to throw as close to the hitter as he possibly can hoping to hit them.” Johnny’s concern was evident in his voice. “Val’s already warned him a couple of times but when he thinks Val can’t see it he tries it again.”
“Thanks for the warning brother,” Scott said with a clap on Johnny’s shoulder. “I’ll be watching him.”
“You do that,” Johnny said with a grin. “I put a lot of work into you so I don’t want to have to go training a replacement.”
“Very funny,” Scott grimaced as he made his way to the plate.
Johnny was right. The Coyotes’ Pitcher was still, in spite of having been warned by Val, trying to pick off the hitters. But Scott was on the alert and took one of those balls way out to left center field where the Coyotes center fielder was forced to chase it before he could send it back into the infield with a hard throw to the Second Baseman.
Scott reached third base safely much to the relief of his brother and amid the cheers of his teammates and non-playing friends. Jose, who hit a hard single between the first and second basemen allowing Scott to score easily, followed him.
The next two strikers, as they were called according to the rules, also reached safely. The third one to follow Jose, Dave Manning, was struck by a pitch on the right elbow that left it numb and soon swollen. By virtue of the rules of the game he was allowed to leave as having been disabled though it wasn’t without a fight from the Coyotes’ team captain. However, he wasn’t going to win that argument.
“The rules say that he can withdraw from the game if he’s disabled,” Val stated emphatically. “If getting hit with the ball on the elbow hard enough to cause it to swell isn’t disabled I don’t know what is!” Turning to Scott he said “Choose your replacement and send him to first base. Let’s get this game moving.”
Tom Dugan came in to take Dave’s place. Rafael, who hit a pop up that was easily caught by the Coyotes’ first baseman, followed him. Scott’s team was leading, three to nothing, at the end of the third inning. The first two innings had been unproductive for both teams.
The Mustangs’ Pitcher, Jamie Nixon, struck out the first two batters he faced. Both men stood there and let good balls pass them by without even trying to hit them thus they were counted as strikes. A howl went up from the Coyotes’ fans but Val just pulled out his rule book and read to them Rule # 12: “’ Should the Striker stand at the Bat without striking at good balls thrown repeatedly at him, for the apparent purpose of delaying the game, or of giving advantage to players, the referees, after warning him, shall call one strike, and if he persists in such action, two and three strikes when three strikes are called he shall be subject to the same rules as if he struck at three fair balls.’” This referenced Rule #11: “’The Ball being struck at three times and missed, and caught each time by a player on the opposite side, the Striker shall be considered out. Or, if the Ball he ticked or knocked, and caught on the opposite side, the Striker shall be considered out. But if the ball is not caught after being struck at three times, it shall be considered a knock, and the Striker obliged to run.’”
Johnny was impressed. “Old Val sure is taking this seriously,” he remarked to his father and Jim Talbot who were watching with him. “I’ve never known him to read that much in all the time I’ve known him!”
Both older men chuckled for it was true – Val Crawford was not a man noted for his love of good literature. Reading a menu at the café or a wanted poster or maybe the newspapers that passed through the area was about all he ever did peruse.
The current Coyotes’ batter hit a ground ball to the left of the Pitcher, which was quickly scooped up by the Mustangs Third Baseman, Hank Anderson. Now it was the Mustangs turn again but they, too, went down in order when Jamie Nixon, Pete Wilkins and Hank Anderson struck out, flied out to right center field and hit one directly back to the Coyotes’ Pitcher without it ever touching the ground.
Nixon struck out the first two, walked the third and the fourth and the fifth Coyote to come to bat, hit a hard double to right field allowing two runs to score. That made it four to two. There was a close call at third base when the Coyotes’ shortstop, a hard hitting and rough playing, miner by the name of Hobson, tried to take Jose down as he approached home base but Jose was quick and agile and jumped back out of the way before the man could knock him down.
For the next two hours the score went back and forth until, finally, the Mustangs won twelve to ten. There was a lot of whooping and hollering from the friends of the Lancers and those who were acquainted with members of the team other than Scott.
“You know,” Scott remarked later. “I think it’s a good thing we agreed on those modifications to the rules. I think the game would still be going on if we had to reach one hundred tallies. It would take more than the three hours we played to finish a game.”
“You’re right, Scott,” Jim Talbot agreed. “The league officials were smart. Back in ’45 New York’s Knickerbockers and a team from Brooklyn played a four-inning game that ended with the score twenty-four to four in favor of New York. They needed to score twenty-one times in order to win.”
“Mr. Talbot, you’ve been reading again haven’t you?” Johnny teased their neighbor.
Jim just grinned sheepishly and admitted, “I’ve been reading up on the history of the game John. I figure if I’m going to sponsor a team I’d better know the rules and the history of the game. It might surprise you to know that Maura’s been reading it too. Sometimes I think she wants to get in the game herself – she’s that interested.”
They all laughed for a minute and then Johnny, in particular, got thoughtful. He wouldn’t put anything past his surrogate mother – whether she be Irish and named Maura or Mexican named Maria like his mother – either one was capable of almost anything. He grinned to himself as he thought about the petite, ladylike redhead playing ball. That was a sight he’d love to see!
Turning to the two older men with a grin he said, “I bet she’d be pretty good.”
“My wife is pretty good at everything she does, Johnny,” Jim said with a big smile. “She probably would be good at this given a chance. I wouldn’t put it past her to recruit Teresa and some of the other younger women to start a league of their own – for fun anyway. Just don’t go giving her any ideas you hear?”
The men then turned their attention back to the game. The Mustangs were good-naturedly shaking hands with the opposing team but Dana Simpson, his Pitcher, and one or two other players were looking very disgruntled about the loss. Murdoch took it upon himself to speak to the man.
“Good game wouldn’t you say Simpson?”
“Would have been better if we’d won,” the other man replied. “We’re going to have to work harder.” He then turned toward his players and started barking orders and bawling out those whom he felt had contributed to the team’s loss.
Murdoch was somewhat disturbed by the man’s attitude but decided to let it go for now. He was proud of Scott and the Lancer Mustangs. They’d worked hard at becoming a cohesive unit and practiced until they were exhausted almost every night. It showed in the way they played and the way they supported and encouraged each other.
“Good game, son,” he said as Scott approached them.
“Thanks. They played well tonight. Especially in light of the fact that Simpson’s Pitcher kept trying to get away with hitting us – and not because we were on the base path trying to advance.”
“Yeah,” Johnny said. “I noticed that. That ain’t in the rules, is it?”
“Yes and no, brother,” the blond replied. “To be considered out the runner must be hit with the ball. But the Pitcher is not supposed to deliberately try to hit a striker when he’s standing in that space reserved for him in front of the Catcher. I think Mr. Simpson just wants to win so badly he’ll employ any method to do it.”
“I’m sure Val will be keeping a close eye on him,” Murdoch said.
“Gabe, too,” Jim Talbot added. “Neither one of those two gentlemen is going to allow that kind of behavior. By the way, Scott,” he said, “How’s Dave Manning?”
“I’ll answer that question,” said Dr. Sam Jenkins as he approached to offer his congratulations to the team captain. “His elbow is badly bruised and swollen but it’s not broken. However,” he added as the men heaved a collective sigh of relief, “It will be a few days before he’ll be able to work or play ball. He’s going to have to keep it in the sling and rest it and keep putting cold compresses on it every couple of hours to help the swelling go down. Simpson ought to be horsewhipped for allowing such un-sportsmanlike behavior!”
“No need to worry about him,” Val said as he, too, approached the Lancers and Jim Talbot. “I warned him that if I see anything like that in another game I’ll automatically end it and his team will forfeit to the competition.” Turning to Scott he added, “But you’d better keep your eyes open Scott. Simpson’s not too happy with this defeat and he’s not going to take it lightly.”
The men all headed off in different directions after the game was over. Jelly Hoskins was collecting the balls and bats and the stakes that were used for bases. He’d bring Teresa home when she and the other ladies had finished cleaning up and packing away their glassware and disposing of their trash and garbage from the refreshment stand. Jim Talbot would also remain, as his wife was among the ladies that had sold the refreshments and had been elected treasurer so to speak. He’d stay with the ladies while they finished and then see to it that Teresa and Jelly got safely as far as the road that forked off from the main road to Lancer and led to the Bar T.
Scott, Johnny and Murdoch all retrieved their horses, mounted up and headed for home. Scott wanted to take a hot bath to alleviate the itchiness he felt from sweating, and the dust and dirt that had been ingrained into his skin during the course of the game. Lady trotted alongside Johnny and Barranca as they headed for home.
Val went to relieve his deputy who had been covering the town for him while he officiated at the ball game and Sam Jenkins headed for his small house on the edge of Green River in hopes of getting a good night’s sleep. Being the only doctor in the vicinity of Green River, Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells had its drawbacks – one of them being that he was often called out on emergencies at odd hours.
It didn’t take long for the girls and women to straighten up the area where they had been serving drinks and snacks, and soon everyone who was left behind was on their way home. The Talbots, Teresa and Jelly drove along together, as Jim had planned, until they reached the fork in the road that divided the two ranches. Then Jelly continued on down to Lancer while Jim and Maura turned off toward the Bar T content that they had seen their friends safely to this point. Jim and Maura were met at their door by Jose Espinoza, their foreman, who took the wagon and team to the barn allowing his employers to go straight into the house for their bedtime ritual of coffee and cookies or cake and the brushing of Maura’s hair once it was released from its pins.
It was full dark and going on nine o’clock by the time the Talbots, Jelly and Teresa arrived home. Teresa took the glasses that she had brought from home into the kitchen and washed them quickly with water she heated on the stove. After rinsing them she placed them upside down on several towels to let the air dry them and headed for bed. The next game wasn’t for a couple of days and the Mustangs would be playing Paul Bass’ Shamrocks. Rumor had it that Bass had put together a pretty good team that played aggressively, but fairly. So far they had played the Bar T Pilgrims and the Coyotes. The Pilgrims had beaten them but only by one run, but the Coyotes had stomped all over them throwing the ball at the players harder than was necessary in order to put them out. Simpson’s team was bullying the substitute umpires and the referees into allowing tactics that Val Crawford would not allow in any game he officiated. This was what had allowed the Mustangs to beat the heretofore-unbeaten Coyotes. Val Crawford was one lawman that would neither be bought nor intimidated.
Morning came and with it hot, sunny weather. After breakfast Maria and Teresa packed lunches for the boys who would be out by Black Mesa for the day. Spring round up was starting and, though Scott was busy with the baseball league fundraising, he had promised his father that his regular work would not suffer. Thus he and Johnny spent the day chasing stubborn cows out of the brush – especially those who had decided to wander off into the thickest bushes and brambles there were in order to have their calves in privacy. Both boys were thoroughly disgusted with the mothers by the time they were through. By Scott’s count no less than twenty cows had dropped calves in the worst conditions possible. Both young men had scratches on their wrists where the gloves they wore covered their hands but weren’t quite long enough to reach the cuffs of their shirts when the cuffs were pulled back due to exertion.
That night the Mustangs played against Paul Bass’ Shamrocks. Clad in green and gold uniforms with real baseball shoes made of leather and canvas on their feet the Shamrocks gave the Mustangs quite a run for their money. The Mustangs won by one run after the nine innings were over. The final score was twenty-one to twenty.
“We’ll get you next time, Scott,” Bass said jokingly as they shook hands at the end of the game.
“You can try, Mr. Bass,” Scott said with an answering grin. “You can surely try.”
“Scott – good game my friend,” said Ken Marchant, the Shamrocks’ Second Baseman as he came along to shake hands with the opposing team. “Kevin Millar over to Spanish Wells started up a team too. We’re playing them tomorrow. Why don’t you come check out the new competition?”
“I may just do that,” Scott said. “A lot of people seem to be really enjoying this game.”
“Yes, they are,” Ken agreed. “See you then. The game is at six in that field behind the school.”
“You bet,” Scott replied.
It turned out that the team from Spanish Wells had an updated copy of the rules, which they gladly shared with Scott. His book, published in 1845, did not make reference to the nine-inning rule. Instead of playing until someone scored twenty-one times now the game, since 1857, consisted of nine innings with three outs to a side in each inning. Called strikes were now in place so that if a batter didn’t swing but the ball was in fair territory, they could be called out after three. Also, it stated, the pitcher’s box was now to be six feet square. This rule had gone into effect two years after the end of the war.
The Spanish Wells team had replaced the wooden stakes, which they felt to be dangerous to runners and fielders, with canvas bags approximately two feet square that were filled with sand. They stayed in place reasonably well but nobody got hurt if they ran into one. Scott felt that this was a good idea. The bases no longer had to be pounded into place every time they played – often times between innings depending on how rough the play was.
The game between the Shamrocks and the Spanish Wells team, which went by the name of the Spanish Wells Falcons, went ten innings before the newcomers finally won by a score of ten to nine. Both teams fought long and hard and battled right up to the end to break the tie which had occurred when Paul Bass hit a hard double to center field.
Scott enjoyed watching the game very much, as did Jelly and Murdoch. Scott didn’t know it but Johnny was also observing closely. As he had with the Coyotes, he was making notes as to who did what, when and how. He especially made note of which batters had a hard time with left handed pitchers as opposed to right handed pitchers and who would swing on a curve ball but not a fast ball. Curve balls had been permitted for about the last ten years – somewhere in the 1860s Candy Cummings received credit for throwing the first one.
Over the next few days the Mustangs played two games and many of them attended games played by the Shamrocks, the Pilgrims, the Coyotes, the Falcons and several other teams from outlying ranches and towns in the valley. During this time Scott developed and perfected his batting order and it would remain the same, with the only substitutions being different players due to illness, injury or other commitments, for the rest of the summer. The people of Bear Creek came en masse when they heard that these games were being held to raise money to help them rebuild their homes and businesses. The ladies of Bear Creek assisted Maura, Teresa, Maria, Juanita and the other ladies of the three local towns in preparing and selling cold drinks and cookies. All the women, young and old, had a good time as they shared in the work and cheered on their favorite players. Johnny was a frequent visitor to the refreshment stand turning on his considerable charm to wangle the biggest and freshest cookies. Teresa was wise to him, as was Maura, and they quite often put him to work in order to earn his treats. He could be seen fetching water for them and carrying crates of glasses that were too heavy for the women to a central point where they could retrieve what they needed without constantly having to go to one wagon or another.
When he wasn’t seen hanging around the refreshment stand Johnny was sitting off by himself observing the players as he had at the last Coyotes/Mustangs game. He was gathering a lot of data on how the opposing teams ran, hit and fielded the ball. Nobody was any the wiser. He kept his eyes and ears opened and learned a lot about the game and the teams that were opposing his brother’s. He didn’t like what he heard about Dana Simpson. Rumor had it, and it would prove to be true, that he was placing bets on the games and trying to intimidate the other team captains into throwing games so that his team would have the best record. The Bar T’s Tim O’Connor had already told him that the Pilgrims would play honestly and not by his rules. Two nights later somebody waylaid Tim as he left his girlfriend’s home and beat him up. But two cracked ribs and a lot of cuts and bruises were not going to scare Tim off. He continued to coach his team while he recovered and warned the other team captains about Simpson. A few men were scared off of the teams but the captains, including portly Paul Bass refused to be intimidated and continued to play their best against all comers.
Just a couple of days before the Mustangs’ next game Johnny approached his brother.
“What’s this?” Scott asked as Johnny handed him the paper he’d been making notes on.
“You could call it a ‘scouting report’,” Johnny said. “While you’ve been beating the stuffing out of those balls I’ve been keeping an eye on your competition. Those notes’ll tell you who swings on what kind of a ball, how they run, and what kind of speed they’ve got. All kinds of stuff I think will help you.”
“Thanks brother,” Scott said with a big grin. “This will be a lot of help. Now when do we get you into a uniform and in a game so that you can put these notes to work yourself?”
“Not any time soon, brother,” Johnny said with a grin. “Keep tryin’. You might get me in one yet!”
Scott grimaced and went off to find the rest of his teammates. With these notes that Johnny had given him they could plan strategy. Meanwhile Jelly, accompanied by Umpire Val Crawford, was placing the bags and the home plate in their proper positions. The other officials were already in place.
Tim O’Connor arrived accompanied by his employers. Maura was watching over him in the same mother hen manner that she watched over Johnny and Scott. Tim managed to escape when they split up by the refreshment stand. The tall blond rancher and the strawberry blonde cowboy took seats near Murdoch to enjoy the game. It didn’t escape their notice that Dana Simpson eagerly sought Scott out to have a talk with him. It also didn’t escape their notice that Scott was not happy with what Simpson had to say. Concerned, Murdoch and Jim got up from their seats in the newly constructed bleachers and approached the pair.
“Scott, my boy,” Simpson said in a hearty tone of voice, “it’s good to see you’ve arrived on time. In quieter tone of voice he added, “May I speak to you? Privately? It’s a matter of some importance.”
“Of course,” Scott said somewhat mystified as to what could be so important that the Captain of the other team needed to speak to him in private. He soon had his answer and he would not be pleased at what the man had to say.
The two men walked to a small copse of trees about fifty yards from the playing field. Simpson then reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. Scott looked at him puzzled.
“I’m prepared to make you a very generous offer, my boy,” he said in a very quiet voice, “to allow my team to win and end up with the best record of all the teams in the league at the end of the season. How does five hundred dollars sound?”
“You must be kidding,” Scott said. “We’re not in this to make money for ourselves or to throw games so that other teams look good. We’re in this to make money to help the people of Bear Creek. And have fun while we’re at it.”
“Yes, yes, yes, I know all that but there’s no reason why we can’t make a little money for ourselves is there? I have a lot riding on the games – this one and the final one of the season in particular. How about a thousand?”
“I already told you Mr. Simpson,” Scott said angrily. “I’m not interested in making any bets on the game nor will I throw a game just so that your team can look better!”
“Five thousand? As you said it’s for a worthy cause.”
“No!” Scott started to walk away but Simpson’s Pitcher, Mark Curry, who stood at least three inches taller than Scott and was a good fifty pounds or more heavier than the slender blond Lancer son, grabbed his arm.
“Mr. Simpson isn’t through talking to you boy,” he growled.
“Well, I’m through talking to him!” was the angry Lancer’s reply.
“What’s going on over there?” Val, from his vantage point on the base path could see, if not actually hear, that something was wrong.
“Nothing, Sheriff, nothing,” Simpson said in that oily voice of his that he reserved for those he was trying to pacify.
“It don’t look like nothin’ ta me!” Val exclaimed suspiciously.
“What’s goin’ on Scott?” Johnny had just arrived and had joined the group in the trees.
“Mr. Simpson here was trying to get me to accept some money to throw the game so the Coyotes will have the best record at the end of the summer. I told him I wasn’t interested.”
“That so Simpson?” Val asked.
“The boy misunderstood, Sheriff Crawford,” Simpson said. “Mr. Curry and I were offering to make a substantial donation to the Bear Creek fund. We are trying to raise money for those poor unfortunates, aren’t we?”
“I didn’t misunderstand Mr. Simpson!” Scott was furious. “You told me you’d make it worth my while if I allowed your team to win so that you have the best record at the end of the summer. That’s not going to happen! If the Coyotes can’t win fair and square then they won’t get the Championship title. That’s all there is to it.”
So saying Scott marched away leaving Val to warn Simpson that if he received any more complaints or even suspected that the Coyotes were deliberately playing dirty he would personally see to it that each and every player that he suspected was cheating, or was caught cheating, would be spending some time in his jail. With that he told Simpson to get his team together – the game was about to start.
The Mustangs won the coin toss and thus the right to bat first. Johnny sat a little way apart from everybody keeping a close eye on the Coyotes. Lady lay next to him also watching. She could sense the tension coming from her friend and even more so from Scott who struck out his first time at bat because he was still so irritated with Simpson’s proposal.
As Scott took his seat on the sidelines Johnny and Lady came up to him. Johnny plopped down on the bench beside his brother and squeezed his shoulders. “Calm down brother. Don’t let them get to you.”
“I know I shouldn’t,” Scott said, “but the man makes me so angry. He offered me a lot of money to throw the game so that his team will have the best record and be able to claim the championship at the end of the summer.
“Yeah, well, that ain’t too surprisin’ is it? I mean he and Pierce Wilson were practically best friends and you remember him. Is it any wonder Mike turned out the way he did?” Frowning, his sapphire blue eyes dark with worry, he added before he walked away, “Just you watch out for Mr. Dana Simpson and his friends, brother. If he wants to win that badly there ain’t no tellin’ what he’ll do.”
“I will,” Scott replied. “Don’t worry.”
Johnny and Lady wandered off to a shady corner where he would watch the game closely and see if there was anything new that the Coyotes had come up with by way of dirty tricks on the field or changes in their stance in the batters box. Scott had been very pleased with his notes from the previous games.
Turning his attention back to the game he saw Second Baseman, Mark Ferguson, hit one past the Second Baseman and the shortstop into left field. Running hard he got to first base and beyond before the ball came back into the infield. The Coyotes’ First Baseman, George Lombard, glared at Mark but didn’t dare try anything because the referee for first base that night was looking right at him, for there were to be no balls deliberately thrown at the hitters any more. No one seemed to know, or be able to find where it was stated that it was illegal according to the rules, but Doc Jenkins had told Val he’d had it with sprains, fractures and concussions due to the hitters having to be actually hit with a thrown ball to be considered out. Val had a meeting with the newly formed board of league officials, and the team captains, and they all agreed that at first base the ball would have to reach the baseman before the runner, the runner would have to be tagged at second and home plate and the ball caught by the baseman at third before the runner could touch it. At home plate the runner would have to be tagged. It was hoped that this would cut down on the injuries to the players.
Paul McGovern was next and hit a short fly ball to center field that was caught by Dana Simpson who was playing that position that night. The Mustangs’ next hitter was Hank Anderson who struck out.
The Coyotes batting order started with their Second Baseman, David McCarthy, who hit a single to left center field and was followed by Catcher Curtis Johnson who grounded out to first. Tony Hobson, the Coyotes’ Short Stop, hit a single to right center. The team captain, Dana Simpson hit a fly ball to right field that was easily caught by Paul McGovern, followed Hobson.
With two outs recorded the Coyotes’ next batter was their Left Fielder, Rick Donaldson – Dana Simpson’s nephew. Rick was self confident but not arrogant – unlike many of his teammates. He faced Jamie Nixon calmly and ignored the first two balls that came his way. Every bit as tall as Scott, but twenty pounds, or more heavier, he stood solid as Stonewall Jackson during a battle as he waited for the ball he wanted to come to him.
He didn’t have long to wait as Nixon wound up and threw his first pitch to this particular player.
“Ball!” Val shouted so all could hear.
Nixon caught the ball Greene threw back to him, wound up and pitched again.
Donaldson continued to watch Nixon intently. Nixon looked toward Noah Greene to see if he was ready yet. He was and the next pitch was another ball. Several more pitches came across the plate before Rick made contact. He hit the ball hard toward the shortstop who threw it toward Scott at first base. Scott stretched out the full length of his long stride and caught the ball as it came to him. Despite his speed, and young Donaldson was a fairly decent runner, he was out at first base. His teammates were very unhappy about it – they thought Scott’s foot had come off the bag but the first base referee, this time Green River storekeeper and friend of the Talbots and Lancers, Brad Ingersoll, told them and everyone present that he had watched closely and Scott’s foot had most definitely not come off the bag no matter what the Coyotes and their captain thought. Rick Donaldson himself accepted this news with good grace. The rest of his teammates, especially Pitcher Mark Curry, glared at Val, Ingersoll and Scott. It was plain to everyone that the Mustangs would need to be careful because these guys were going to be out for a win by any means possible. Fair or foul made no difference to them.
The Mustangs came up to bat in the third inning with the lead off hitter being Pitcher Jamie Nixon who managed to hit a double, but Second Baseman, Rafael Mendoza who followed him, hit a soft grounder to short and was thrown out at first. Jamie wisely stayed where he was avoiding being the second out of the inning. Pete Wilkins hit a hard shot to left field that went way over the head of Rick Donaldson. Donaldson, in left field, had to chase it quite a way before he caught up with it where it landed. Because of this Nixon was able to score easily when Cipriano, who was helping Señor Scott by acting as a base running coach, waved him on. And, much to Scott’s delight he was proving to be a very wise coach. They ran better when Cipriano was watching them and the other team.
Dave Manning was next and hit a soft single just behind the Pitcher and in front of the short stop, which moved Pete up to second base. The Mustangs were now leading one to nothing and Greene was up. He managed to hit a single, which moved Manning safely to second base and Wilkins to third. Now it was Scott’s second time up and the bases were loaded. This time, after picking up and discarding several bats, until he found the one he was most comfortable with, he remembered his brother’s words of wisdom and didn’t allow the confrontation with Dana Simpson to get to him. He stood there calmly and waited for what he considered the perfect pitch. Then he let loose and sent the ball flying well into center field far enough that he, too, hit a triple and three more runs scored before the Coyotes’ center fielder could get the ball back into the infield.
Johnny could be heard whooping and hollering with excitement and Lady echoed his excitement with her barking. The Pilgrims and Shamrocks and their supporters who were in attendance expressed their delight as well with shouts of “that’s the way to do it Scott” and “way to go Scott”. The Coyotes, by virtue of their underhanded method of trying to win games, did not have a lot of friends or fans in the area. Word of their methods had spread quickly around the valley.
Mark Ferguson was next. He managed a long single, bringing Scott home from third base, when the ball he hit sailed past the shortstop and the Second Baseman only to be retrieved, relatively quickly, by the center fielder. The score now stood at five to nothing. McGovern followed up and bunted a hard rap toward the Third Baseman who scooped it up and threw Ferguson out at second. There were now two outs.
Anderson and Nixon both reached safely and were followed by Rafael Mendoza who also hit a single to right field. However, Pete Wilkins was not so lucky; he hit one straight back to the Pitcher who threw him out at first – just barely missing him in the process. The score was now six to nothing as McGovern was able to score from third base on Rafael’s single.
The Coyotes first five hitters reached base safely and they managed to score a pair of runs before their half of the inning ended. There were a few attempts at arguing with Val over close calls – by both teams – but all the good sheriff had to do was pull out the rule book and show them where he was right and they were wrong and that would end the argument. The Mustangs were less inclined to argue than the Coyotes but even quiet Scott Lancer became angry once in awhile.
The game went on and finally, at the end of the nine innings the Lancer Mustangs had won by a score of ten to eight when Scott hit a two run home run in the top of the ninth inning and the Coyotes were unable to tie it up again on their last ups. Well-wishers who were jostling to pound him on the back or shake his hand surrounded Scott and there was a lot of yelling. The obligatory hand shaking after the final out was carefully watched by the umpire and the referees. None of them were fooled by Simpson’s apparent willingness to accept that his team had lost legitimately.
“Show a little genuine courtesy or I’ll forfeit your next two games to your opposition,” Val told Simpson. “From what I can see the only one on your team to do so is your nephew. Too bad you can’t learn from his example.”
Grudgingly Simpson did just that. Forfeiting games was not to his liking. His team couldn’t win the “championship” title if they forfeited games any more than if they lost games. Silently he vowed to find a way to get the Shamrocks and, more importantly, the Mustangs out of the picture. The Pilgrims were already struggling to stay in the running due to injuries and players being frightened off. He very studiously avoided all contact with Jim Talbot and his wife because they had an uncanny way of seeing through him and knowing exactly what he was up to.
The Mustangs and the Coyotes had the next night off. The Shamrocks, led by Paul Bass, and the Pilgrims now with Noah Webster as their Catcher due to Tim O’Connor’s injuries had a game, which was also attended by the Mustangs, Coyotes and their supporters. Also in attendance were many of the shopkeepers and ranchers from the area as well as some of the farmers. Plus family members of all and some folks that were just passing through attended as well. There were even a handful of cavalrymen in attendance – a few of whom had played the game under the old rules during the war. All in attendance had a good time and the ladies, headed by Maura and Teresa sold a lot of lemonade, coffee, cookies and the latest addition to their offerings at the games – popcorn. Popcorn was by no means a new treat – the Pilgrims had learned about it from the friendly Wampanoags who helped them survive their first year in the new world – but to have it for sale at a community event was new.
It seemed to Scott that, every time he turned around Johnny was munching on something. And yet he still had money in his pocket. Suspicious he questioned his brother about this.
“Johnny? If you’ve still got money in your pocket how are you paying for all those snacks you’ve had? Did you charm Mrs. Talbot and the other ladies into giving them to you for free?”
“Nope. I’m payin’ for ‘em.”
“That’s for me to know brother. You may find out later – then again maybe not.” With that mysterious answer Johnny turned his attention back to the game, his snack and Lady with whom he was sharing his snack – on a limited basis. He didn’t want her to get sick from eating food that wasn’t good for her.
The Pilgrims struggled along without Tim. Solo home runs by Second Baseman Paul Watson, Center Fielder David Ortiz and singles by First Baseman Jim Howley and Third Baseman Duban Ramirez, that allowed two more runs to cross the plate, put them on top of the Shamrocks four to three at the end of the fourth inning.
The game ran another hour and a half with the final score being eight to six. When it was over, and the obligatory handshaking at the end – performed with much more sincerity than the Coyotes had shaken with the Mustangs the night before – the ribbing of the Mustangs started. Scott had made quite a few friends since coming to California and many of them were playing baseball on one of the teams. While the Shamrocks, Pilgrims, Coyotes and Mustangs were the best of the four there were always the Falcons from Spanish Wells and teams sponsored by other ranches around to offer a challenge.
“Hey, Scott,” Pilgrims Pitcher Doug Welch said, “you guys are next, you know.”
“We’ll see about that,” Scott replied with a laugh. “There’s nine innings to a game, you know. And an awful lot can happen in those nine innings.”
“Sounds like you’re afraid of losing to us, Scott,” jibed their back up Pitcher Curt Gowdy.
“Not in the least,” Scott fired back. “I’m just stating facts is all.”
“Would you care to put some money on the outcome?”
The speaker was thirty-five-year-old George Lombard – Catcher for the Coyotes.
“No, I would not,” was the firm reply.
“Why not? Afraid you’ll lose?” queried Coyotes Pitcher Mark Curry.
“Hey! Didn’t you hear what my brother had to say?” Johnny had approached in time to hear Curry’s comments. “He said he doesn’t want to make any bets so why don’t you back off?”
“I can handle this, Johnny,” Scott told his brother while giving him an appreciative smile.
“Handle what?” Sheriff Gabe backed up by Val Crawford came along.
“Curry here is trying to get Scott to bet on the outcome of tomorrow’s game.” Johnny glared at Curry who glared right back at him.
“That true, Scott?” Gabe asked.
“Yes, but I can handle it Gabe,” Scott said. “Thanks anyway.”
“If you’re sure…”
“I’m sure. You and Val have things to do, don’t you. As in towns to patrol?”
“If I hear any more about there being any betting on these games,” Val said warningly to Simpson who had joined the group, “I’ll forfeit all of your games.”
“And I’d better not hear of any more ‘accidents’ befalling members of the other teams such as happened to young O’Connor of the Bar T,” Gabe added.
With a last warning look at the group to break it up quickly and go about the business of gathering their equipment and going home, Val and Gabe departed. Scott turned his attention back to Curry and Simpson.
“No. I’m not afraid that the Pilgrims will beat us. We’re in this league to have fun and to make money for some people who have had a bit of hard luck. We’re not in this to make money for ourselves.” Scott glared at Curry though he was a bit bigger. “If you were paying attention to me last night you’d know that you’re wasting your breath asking me to bet on the games. Now good-night, gentlemen. It’s late and I’m anxious to get home. I have a lot of work to do before the game tomorrow night.”
Scott was not joking when he said that he had a lot of work to do the next day. They had rounded up quite a few strays that were unbranded and they needed to take care of that before turning them loose on the range again for the rest of the summer. In the fall they would be rounded up and driven to the nearest railhead for sale and shipment to the slaughterhouses back east – probably Chicago.
It was hot and dusty and the smell of smoke and burned hide was almost overwhelming but they persevered and had most of the cattle branded by dinnertime. Then it was time to get ready for the game between the Pilgrims and the Mustangs. The Pilgrims had decided on red and blue for their team colors and were quite colorful compared to the Mustangs – not that it mattered to either side. Both teams had full uniforms too. Jim Talbot spared no expense and had challenged his thrifty Scottish neighbor to do the same. Each team member wore jerseys of cotton in contrasting colors with the team logo on the front. Leather and canvas shoes were on their feet. The pants were snug enough to fit properly and still allow for freedom of movement. Narrow leather belts were strung through the belt loops on the trousers. They even wore caps of wool with nothing more than a round crown and a visor. They all looked splendid and professional – for a group of amateurs. Johnny took one look at those caps – especially the one on his brother’s fair hair and started laughing so hard he had tears running down his face.
“Well, will ya look at that? Very pretty, brother!”
“I’m glad you think so,” Scott said. “There’s one just like it waiting for you.”
“Nuh-uh! I ain’t wearin’ one of them things on my head! I got a reputation to keep up. Madrid don’t wear no silly looking hats.”
“Oh, but as a member of the Lancer Mustangs,” Scott said, “you will need to wear one when you play. You don’t want to stand out from everyone else do you?”
“Sure I do,” Johnny said. “I do anyway just ‘cause I’m so good lookin’ as opposed to my older brother who wears silly shirts and sillier lookin’ hats!”
Scott chased after his brother with the spare cap in his hand that Teresa, who had come out of the house during their “discussion”, had handed to him. Johnny ran and ducked and dodged around his brother all the while laughing even harder. Scott’s indignant attitude and failed attempts to catch him did nothing to calm him down. And Teresa was giggling so hard she, too, had tears running down her face, as she watched the brothers’ struggle over the cap. She could tell that there was no way Johnny was going to wear one of those caps whether he played in a game or not. Not willingly anyway. Their silliness continued for about ten minutes until Scott realized that he’d have to hurry if he were to get to the game on time. Johnny was still laughing at his brother as Scott rode out of the yard – and he wasn’t wearing the uniform cap either.
Dana Simpson and Mark Curry were among the spectators as was Simpson’s nephew, Rick Donaldson. The former were there to spy out the competition and see what, if anything, they had to worry about. Rick was there simply to enjoy the game. Maura Talbot and Teresa O’Brien made sure that their respective teams had cool water to rinse their mouths out with and to drink when they weren’t running. The other ladies handled the sale of cookies, drinks and popcorn to the rest of the spectators while rooting for their favorite players at the same time.
The Pilgrims had a substitute short stop that night. Young Lee Hawk, eighteen and all of six feet tall with honey blond hair and brown eyes took the place of Jack Taylor who was having to work late at the bank in Green River. There was an audit coming due and he was charged with going over the books to be sure that there were no more mistakes like the one that Murdoch Lancer had had brought to his attention by the bank in Spanish Wells. Harvey Wheeler was not going to be caught with inaccurate books if it meant staying late every night until the auditors came. Such attention to detail was Harvey’s way and he hoped it would draw business from important men like Murdoch Lancer and Jim Talbot though handling the money of the myriad of small farms, ranches and other businesses didn’t hurt either. He was friendly, fair and gave good rates on loans and deposits.
The Pilgrims had won the coin toss and had first ups. First up was Lee Hawk who bounced a chopper over the head of Jamie Nixon. It was retrieved fairly quickly by Rafael at shortstop and sent back to the Second Baseman. Lee was held to a long single. He was followed by left fielder Pete Wilkins who also hit a single, as did the next two hitters. Jamie Nixon’s night was not starting off well at all. When the inning ended the Pilgrims were up three to nothing and the Mustangs were figuratively out for blood.
There was a lot of good-natured razzing going on between supporters of both teams. Tim teased Johnny about how well his team was doing without him and Johnny came right back at him that maybe he should continue to miss the games if that were the case. Murdoch and Jim Talbot teased each other as well – especially when Scott, normally the best hitter on his team, struck out his first time up. Maura and Teresa stayed out of it and let the men have their fun. They cheered for their teams and consoled those who struck out or had their drive for a hit stolen from them by an outstanding play from one of the opposing players.
When it came to the top of the seventh inning the Pilgrims’ lead had been cut and they were ahead only by a score of five to four. The Mustangs were up and it was Scott at bat first. He managed to hit a triple into left field and scored when backup First Baseman Bob Reilly hit a double. The score was now tied at five.
Scott joined the rest of his team on the sidelines and sat down on the grass to recover his wind after his run. The double by Reilly, who came in as a substitute for Dave who had become ill quite unexpectedly and had gone home, had come on the first pitch that the Pilgrim’s hurler had sent his way and Scott had barely had time to stop running when he was on the move again. Gratefully he rinsed his mouth out with the cool water that Jelly gave him and then, under the watchful eye of his “sister”, he sipped a glass of lemonade that she handed him.
“Thanks, Teresa,” he said with a smile. “Sure hits the spot.”
“You’re welcome,” the girl said as she moved on to offer some to Murdoch and Jim Talbot who were standing a little way away from the teams.
“Thank you, darling,” Murdoch said as she handed him a glass.
“Mr. Talbot?” Teresa offered a glass to him.
“No thank you, Teresa, on the lemonade but if you have some nice cold water over there I could sure use some of that instead.”
“Of course,” she replied. “We kept some cold and managed to sneak some ice to serve with the drinks. I’ll get you some right away.”
As Murdoch’s ward walked away his friend said to him, “You and Paul did a good job with her Murdoch. She’s quite a girl. Polite, friendly, smart. Maura tells me that she’s turning into an excellent cook and seamstress as well. What Maria hasn’t taught her already Maura is more than delighted to help her with. She’ll make some fellow a good wife some day.”
“Yes, she will,” Murdoch replied as he watched his ward with a loving gaze. “Just not too soon. I hope not too soon.”
“Don’t worry Murdoch,” Jim said, “when it comes time for Teresa to marry you can be sure that man will have to accept her ‘family’ and her relationship with it or she won’t have him. And that family includes your sons and Jelly as well as yourself. In fact, I’d be surprised if any young man dares come courting her that those three don’t approve of. I’d lay odds that he’d have to have Dewdrop’s approval as well.”
This brought a hearty laugh from Murdoch Lancer. Jelly Hoskins was inordinately proud and fond of his “watch bird” – a gander he’d named Dewdrop. Dewdrop, after a brief “disagreement” with the livestock his first day at Lancer, had become an important part of the family – just like Johnny’s Palomino. Several of the other spectators looked their way but when they saw who it was they turned their attention back to the game. If Murdoch, or Jim, wanted them to know what was going on they’d let them in on it sooner or later.
Hank Anderson was the Mustangs’ last batter of the inning as Ferguson and McGovern had already struck out. The Pilgrims’ Pitcher, Doug Welch, was the first batter for them in the bottom of the seventh inning. He hit a screaming line drive over the heads of the Pitcher, Second Baseman and center fielder that took Bob Reilly and Pete Williams five minutes to find. Which, of course, was plenty of time for Welch to come around and score and the others to catch their breath or warm up while they waited for play to continue. The score was now six to five.
The game moved along after this, six strikeouts – four of them for the Mustangs, two walks and a few hits. The final score, at the end of the ninth inning was Pilgrims ten – Mustangs eight.
“Good game, boys,” Jim Talbot said as his team gathered around their injured captain. Finding Scott amid the crowd he walked over and said the same thing, more or less, to him. “Very good game Scott. You boys did yourselves proud hanging in there like you did. The Pilgrims just had a few more things go their way than your Mustangs.”
“Yes sir, that’s the truth,” Scott said wryly. “Especially when Doug hit that ball out into the weeds. I think it took Bob and Pete half an hour to find it.”
“Not really, son,” Murdoch said with a smile. “Only five minutes. It just seemed like an hour after Doug scored. “The Mustangs have nothing to be ashamed of. You played hard and you all played fair.”
“You know something, Mr. Lancer,” the Pilgrims left fielder, Bob O’Malley said, “I don’t think the Coyotes are playing fair. There’s nothing I can prove but it’s strange how the balls they hit go way out into the outfield and beyond but anything their competition hits can’t hardly get out of the infield. No more than a couple of feet from home plate.”
“He’s right, sir,” Scott said. “I’ve been hearing the same thing from the Shamrocks and the Falcons. I’ve noticed it myself. But like Bob said, we can’t prove that they’re tampering with the equipment or we’d go to Val.”
“Sounds like everyone had better be on the alert for dirty tricks then,” Jim said. “I know Simpson likes to win but if he’s doing anything ‘illegal’ to ensure those wins then he’s got to be stopped. Maybe we should alert Val to what we suspect.”
“Alert me to what, Mr. Talbot?” Val had approached unseen as the small group had been talking among themselves.
“We’re not sure, Val,” Murdoch said, “but it looks like Dana Simpson may be cheating to make sure that his team wins as many games as possible.”
“You mean like balls that don’t go very far when they’re hit by the opposition?” Val asked.
“Something like that,” Murdoch agreed.
“Yeah, I noticed there was something fishy but I can’t put my finger on it. The balls I give them to throw are …what’s that word again Scott?”
“Yeah. The balls I give ‘em to play with are regulation but it sure seems funny don’t it that his team can hit them for home runs and the others can’t do anything with ‘em at all. And it ain’t for lack of tryin’!” Val scowled as he considered the possibilities. “Only problem is that every time I ask for the ball to examine it their Catcher has already returned it to Curry and the ball Curry throws back to the Catcher to give to me is a regulation ball. We’ll just have to keep our eyes open and see what we can find out.”
“I’ll tell ya how they can be doin’ it,” Johnny joined them on the tail end of their conversation. “They’ve found them a way of switching balls on you.”
“How?” his father asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Johnny admitted. “I’ve been watchin’ them real close but just when I think I have it figured out somebody on the opposing team gets a hit. A real one – not one of those ‘can barely get two feet away from the bat’ types either.”
“That ain’t much help, Johnny,” Val groused. “We’ll just have to keep an eye open and, if we can prove he’s cheating, his team will forfeit every game they’ve won and maybe even spend a little time visiting my jail. I’m sure that there are some people that would like to pay him a little visit when they hear about this.”
The months passed. With California’s mild weather the league planned to extend the regular season into October. Time enough to scramble and prepare for the rains of winter after this baseball business was over. Those who were intent on helping the people of Bear Creek rebuild had already hired on extra help to replace the ball players. Several homes had already been rebuilt and the general store and the hardware store were back in business. It was a long trip from Bear Creek to any of the towns in the vicinity of Lancer so it was an enormous help to have supplies being shipped in to the local stores. Business was booming too, as the people who stayed on replaced items lost, purchased standard supplies and stocked up on building supplies and tools.
It was late August when Dana Simpson’s gambling started to give him reason to worry. His Coyotes had won some games fair and square, and they had used their doctored balls to win others. Val Crawford and Gabe were watching them closely so they didn’t dare use them too much. They’d managed to warn off a few more players but the majority of those left after the initial round of intimidation tactics and “accidents” were in it for the duration. This included all of the Mustangs, Pilgrims, Shamrocks and Falcons.
“Mr. Simpson. Oh Mr. Simpson,” called a tall man dressed in white ruffled shirt, black string tie, tan pants and black coat over a gold brocade vest. “I’ve come to collect that money you owe me from the other night.”
“What money?” Simpson asked as he and his companion, Mark Curry, stopped to see who was speaking.
“The money you owe me from the poker game Thursday night,” said the stranger.
“I don’t have it right now. You’ll have to wait.”
“How long? I’ve been waiting for two days now as it is.”
“I don’t know, now leave me alone!” Simpson was indignant that this man would, as he put it, accost him on the street.
“Look here Simpson,” the gambler said. “I can’t wait forever. I’ve got a big game to get to down in San Diego. I need that money you owe me to put up a stake for that game.”
“That’s your problem,” the other man said. “You’ll get your money when I get it. Now beat it!”
“I want my money Simpson, by a week from next Friday. I can give you that long but that’s it.”
“Look here, mister gambler man,” Mark Curry said, “you leave Mr. Simpson alone and get lost before I bust up your pretty face.”
“There some sort of problem here?” a new voice – Johnny Lancer’s asked.
“Nothing that concerns you Lancer!” Dana Simpson growled. “Beat it kid. It’s none of your business.”
“When I hear a man being threatened with a beating I tend to make it my business,” Johnny said.
“Mr. Simpson told you to get lost Lancer! Now beat it!”
Curry made the grave mistake of swinging on Johnny. Johnny saw it coming and landed a stunning right cross on the larger man’s jaw that had him seeing stars in short order. When Simpson attempted to draw his gun he found himself looking down the barrel of the gambler’s gun.
“Uh-uh,” the gambler said. “That’s no way to settle a dispute. I’ll give you ‘til Friday noon to come up with the three thousand you owe me. After that I’ll see what the law in this town has to say about those who welsh on their gambling debts.”
Simpson and Curry slunk off before Val Crawford even got wind of the encounter. Then Johnny and the stranger got acquainted.
“Thanks son,” the gambler said.
“Any time. I don’t like Simpson – or his pal Curry either. They’re nothin’ but trouble and they’re tryin’ to talk my brother into throwin’ some of the baseball games so they can win the championship at the beginning of the fall.” Extending his hand Johnny introduced himself. “I’m Johnny Lancer.”
“Bret Maverick,” said the other man. “You live around here Johnny?”
"Yeah. My father, brother and I own a big ranch just outside of Morro Coyo. We do a lot of business here in Green River though – especially with the bank.”
“Yeah. It is. Scott and me – well we get along real good considerin’ how different we are.”
“Sounds like an interesting story. Can I buy you a beer? I’d kind of like to hear all about it.”
“Sure. One beer won’t hurt and since you seem to be so nice I might even tell
you everything. It ain’t no big secret anyway. Anyone around here could tell
you the story of the Lancer family.”
Johnny and his new friend spent over an hour in the saloon nursing cold beers. Bret Maverick wasn’t much of a drinking man – it wasn’t his way and it was a hazard in his chosen profession. A man that had too much to drink was prone to making too many mistakes when he gambled and that was a chance Bret wouldn’t take when he was playing poker.
Bret, and his brother Bart, had grown up in Texas. Circumstances had arisen, Bret told Johnny, that had forced their departure. Not only from their hometown but from their home state as well. And then there was Cousin Beau – he’d gone and gotten himself captured by a Union Patrol during the war only to have a Rebel Patrol come along, capture the Federals and declare him a hero – all this while cleaning up at poker against his captors. His Uncle Beau, Bret and Bart’s Pappy, had been so disgusted he’d banished him to England. They heard from him occasionally and expected he’d return to the US one of these days. Brother Bart was traveling around the country looking to win at whist or poker and they occasionally met up along the road somewhere.
Bret was intrigued by Johnny’s story. He’d heard tales of Johnny Madrid along the border but he sure hadn’t expected the man to be a good ten years younger than himself. Yet, he could easily see that Johnny was not a hardened gunslinger. Johnny didn’t tell him about the hard life he’d lived with his mama and after she died when he was ten, but Bret knew the signs. He’d seen it a lot right after the war ended - boys who had to grow up too fast because their fathers were dead or crippled and unable to support the family.
It was a most enjoyable time for the two of them. Johnny told Bret about the baseball league that Scott had formed. Though Johnny still wasn’t particularly interested in actually playing he was proud of his brother for taking on such a daunting task. As for Johnny he delighted in Bret’s tales of his Pappy and the things he was noted for saying.
“Your Pappy sounds like quite a guy,” Johnny said with twinkling eyes.
“He’s a character all right,” Bret said. “Taught me and Bart all we know about poker – among other things.”
“It’s been nice Bret but I better get going,” Johnny said extending his hand. “Murdoch’s probably wondering what’s keeping me. I was only supposed to come in and get the mail. With Tim Pittman busy working out at the Bar T these days nobody delivers to the ranches any more. Say if you get a chance come on out to Lancer. I think Murdoch and Scott would like to meet you.”
“I might just do that,” Bret said.
“Just don’t go usin’ them fancy manners of yours on Teresa if you do come,” Johnny warned him. “Murdoch or Scott would have your head quicker than you can say ‘Johnny Madrid’.”
“Don’t worry,” the other man replied. “I have no intentions of going head to head with an ex-army officer or a man who’s at least two inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than I am from the way you described him. I leave that kind of stuff to Big Mike – he’s bigger than I am.”
Again the men shook hands and each went his own way. Johnny mounted Barranca and turned toward home. Bret went over to the hotel to get cleaned up before going to the café for dinner. His night’s work would start around six and get very busy a couple of hours later. It would probably stay that way until midnight or after.
Two nights later, a Saturday, the Mustangs had a game against the Spanish Wells Falcons. It was a game that everyone looked forward to for Team Captain Kevin Millar was popular with everyone. He was good natured, laughed a lot and was often the ringleader in some sort of innocent escapade that would, no doubt, have everyone – including the intrepid lawmen of Green River and Spanish Wells, laughing their heads off.
His shortstop, Rico Portillo, was as popular with the ladies as the Lancer brothers. Tall, dark and handsome is the way the girls and young ladies of the area described him. He was very athletic but he didn’t push his weight around. The parents of whichever girl he might be squiring at the time liked him for his personality and his manners. He was quiet and he had a very nice smile. The men liked him as much as the ladies because of his work ethic. He was not a lazy person. He worked hard at the livery stable shoeing horses, cleaning out stalls and loading hay bales into the loft where he stacked them neatly so as to make the most of the space that they had. He also fed, watered and groomed the horses as well as saddling and unsaddling, or hitching and unhitching, any horse or team that was rented from the stable or was being put up for any length of time be it one night or a week or more. They all received the same treatment. This made him one of Johnny’s best friends since coming home to Lancer. The two could often be found getting into mischief with Kevin. Or jumping into waterholes with their clothes on in the hot weather so they could cool off – something Johnny had done with his friend Wes shortly before that young man was killed by a stallion while trying to handle him when under the influence of too much liquor. It had happened during a rather large bump in the road as far as the relationship of the Lancers was concerned but Johnny and Murdoch had grown closer ever since that rocky period.
Now, thankfully, Johnny had friends who were far less likely to tempt him to take off and go back to being footloose and fancy-free. He was steady and dependable and the men liked him immensely. The oldest ones, such as Cipriano, remembered him as a baby and a chubby toddler who was into anything and everything. They were glad to see him settle down to being a responsible young man and as hard a worker as any hired hand.
Johnny, Kevin and Rico, many were convinced, would have been best pals when they were growing up if Maria Lancer hadn’t taken off with her son the way she had. Many were the tales imagined of ribbons dipped in inkwells, girls chased with frogs and garter snakes, pigtails being pulled and such like. As it was Johnny was often caught giving Teresa’s ever-present ponytail a gentle tug when he wanted to tease her. In another century or so, give or take, someone would come up with a term that described Kevin and his antics – “class clown”. Or even “team cheerleader”. He was that kind of guy.
Maura Talbot, however, was not charmed by their antics and could be heard, at any given time, scolding them for their nonsense. She could never stay mad at them for very long any more than anyone else could. And everyone knew that Murdoch’s boys, especially his younger one, were her pets no matter how much she tried to deny it. All the young men who had grown up with Maura and Jim’s boys had a special place in their hearts.
The game that night was held in Green River. The Shamrocks, Coyotes and Pilgrims, along with their supporters, all showed up to watch. So did another small group of cavalry passing through the area and some people from other towns and outlying farms and ranches in the valley. Word had spread and many people wanted to get in on the fun of at least watching a game. Bret Maverick was there and silently observed Dana Simpson making bets with many men as to who would win the game. It was becoming clear to the gambler that the man had a serious problem. It made Bret unsure as to whether or not he would ever get his money.
Jim Talbot arrived at the game on horseback. Maura was nowhere in sight and neither was Teresa or a few of the other ladies that were normally running the concession stand or walking among the spectators with their baskets, trays and pitchers. Murdoch noticed this and asked his friend where the ladies were.
“Beats me Murdoch. She said she had something to do for a little while and the ladies from Spanish Wells would run things for a little while.”
“You know Teresa’s not here either. Or Johnny. It’s not like them to miss their brother’s games.”
“I doubt if it’s anything to worry about Murdoch. Maybe Maura had an extra job for Johnny to do for her. You know how she bribes him with her cookies and such.”
“This is true,” Murdoch laughed. “Between your wife and my housekeeper Johnny should have had to replace his wardrobe a dozen times over he gets so many treats!”
The Falcons took the field first having lost the coin toss. Their lineup consisted of Captain Kevin Millar at first base, Rico Portillo at shortstop, Brooks Robinson at third, Will Mays – a lanky black fellow with the unusual habit of saying “hey” at the start of many a sentence – in center, tall and extremely slender Ted Williams in left field. John Bench was their Catcher while Mike Maldonado covered right, Ryan Sandberg second and Rob Gibson was their Catcher. It was a formidable line up, with back up players Lon Simmons, Doug Smith, Jose Uribe, Will Clark and dangerous Jack Damon, the slugger all awaiting their turn should they be needed.
The Mustangs had all their regular players this time around. Rafael Mendoza, their shortstop, led things off by hitting a chopper over the head of the Pitcher and past the shortstop, which allowed him to get safely to first base.
Rafael was followed, as always, by Pete Wilkins, who also hit a long single and moved his teammate up to second base. Center Fielder, Dave Manning also hit a single to load the bases. Noah Greene was next and he hit a single driving in a run. Now it was Scott’s turn and the bases were still loaded.
Scott walked toward the collection of bats that Jelly was tending and tried several before he found one that he was satisfied with after a few practice swings. Making his way to the plate he ensured that his gloves were on tight and that he was standing in the position that he was most comfortable in when batting. Finally he nodded to Rob Gibson that he was ready. Val snorted as Scott raised the bat to his shoulder.
“Took ya long enough.”
Scott just glared at the rumpled lawman and turned his attention to the Pitcher standing a few feet away.
The first pitch was low and Val properly called it a ball. The next one was a bit high and was also proclaimed to be a ball. The next one was a strike. It was in a decent position but Scott, for reasons known only to himself, chose not to swing at it. The next pitch was another ball making the count three balls and one strike. The sixth pitch was exactly in the position Scott wanted it to be and he swung mightily sending the ball far over the heads of the Falcons outfielders. In the twentieth century that kind of home run would be called a “grand slam”. No matter – in any century that ball was a home run and the Mustangs drew first blood scoring five runs in the first inning. It was especially thrilling for Scott for he’d been in a bit of a hitting slump during the last two weeks of July and the first week of August. When he returned to home plate after circling the bases his teammates were all over him – pounding him on the back and shaking his hand. The Falcons Pitcher, Rob Gibson, just shook his head and grimaced. He was going to have to pitch a lot better than that if they were going to win this game.
Johnny, Maura and Teresa arrived in the midst of all the excitement. The ladies went directly to the concession stand to take up their duties there while Johnny went and joined his father and Jim Talbot on the sidelines.
“What’s all the excitement?” Johnny asked.
“If you’d get here on time you’d know,” his father growled. “Scott just hit a bases loaded home run after Noah hit a single to score Rafael. The Mustangs are ahead five to nothing.”
“Now Murdoch,” Jim said. “He didn’t miss that much of the game.” Turning to Johnny with mock severity he said, “But your brother has been struggling lately and it would have been nice if you’d been here to see him break out of his slump.”
“Exactly!” Murdoch echoed. “At least apologize to him for being late and missing his first decent at bat in weeks.”
“I will, I will,” Johnny said. “I got hung up with something at home.” Turning to their neighbor he added, “Mrs. Talbot’s here now and said to tell you to wait for her and you can ride home together in the buggy.” With a cheeky grin he added, “Either she thinks you’re too old or you’re too young to be trusted riding all the way from Spanish Wells to the Bar T by yourself. She made me promise to give you the message.”
“You think you’re funny, don’t you boy?” Jim said with a glint in his eye. He reached out with his right hand and patted Johnny’s left cheek much as he had done when Johnny was a toddler. “You just mind your manners or you and your brother, who’s just as bad, will wind up cutting my hay all by yourselves. One field is done but there’s a lot more to do and Tim won’t be up to doing that sort of work for a while yet – not until those ribs are healed. And I’ll tell my wife to stop feeding you your weekly dose of her baking.”
“No!” Johnny said in mock horror. “Not that! Anything but that! I couldn’t survive without her cookies and stuff!”
All three men laughed heartily for Maura did enjoy spoiling the Lancer boys. More than anybody, except for young Tim Pittman, they received their fair share of freshly baked treats –and then some – even if she had to send them with a messenger or into town with her husband. It would never do to offend their neighbors!
Johnny then ambled over to congratulate his brother and find a good spot to watch the game. Lady, who had gone to the concession stand knowing someone would give her a drink, joined him a few minutes later. Maura, who had driven Lady over in her buggy, and Teresa did make sure that Lady had some water. It wasn’t quite as hot as it had been but it was warm enough to make every spectator, human or otherwise, thirsty. Lady was always good about staying out from under foot, not to mention keeping an eye on Johnny and Scott to see that they, too, stayed out of trouble.
It didn’t take Lady long to find Johnny and she settled in beside him. He’d found one of the least crowded places he could and made himself comfortable with his pad of paper and pencils. Some of the players on this team were good friends of his – Rico and Kevin especially – and he intended to harass them whenever he saw the opportunity. Scott’s team had finally made three outs so now the Falcons were to have their chance to hit.
The Falcons’ first hitter was their team captain – Kevin Millar. Johnny watched intently to see what Kevin would do. Not only was he still observing the teams for Scott’s sake, he was also looking for that golden opportunity to harass his friends. Kevin managed to hit a single and easily got to first base so there was no chance for Johnny there.
Next up was Rico Portillo. Johnny watched with delight as Rico swung on, and missed, the first two pitches that came his way.
“That’s the way to do it, Rico,” he hooted. “Just swing away and next thing you know this game’ll be over and the Mustangs will have won!”
Rico just glared at Johnny and turned his attention back to Jamie Nixon. The next ball was too low so the young Mexican was safe for the moment. Pointedly he ignored Johnny who kept making comments. He figured he and Kevin would fix their pal later on.
After two more low balls Rico finally got the pitch he’d been waiting for and swung hard. He sent the ball sailing over the heads of everyone – infielder and outfielder alike – bringing Kevin in from first base and scoring two runs batted in. The Spanish Wells residents in attendance went crazy! The Falcons were a good group of young men and very popular with everyone. And it was a chance to razz the Lancer team – all in fun of course.
“Yeah, yeah, lucky shot,” Johnny said when Mike Maldonado, the Falcons right fielder pointed out the score. “It’s early yet. ‘Sides Scott’ll be coming up to bat again – he’ll fix you guys good!”
“We’ll see Johnny,” young Maldonado said. “We’ll see. The game has barely started. We’ll see who’s on top at the end.”
Third Baseman Brooks Robinson was up next and he hit a single to center field. Following him was Center Fielder Will Mays. Willie, as his teammates liked to call him, had a habit of wearing his hat – be it his Stetson or his uniform cap – in a rather peculiar manner. It didn’t sit square on his head and would fall off in a heartbeat. This habit of not settling it correctly caused it to fall off frequently as he as he ran the bases and the fans had grown to love this little bit. It wasn’t intentional but it was very entertaining. This at bat was no different. Halfway down the path to first base his hat went flying off the back of his head. After safely reaching base their back up Catcher, Lon Simmons, who was acting as first base coach for the night, handed it to Willie who, with a sheepish grin, placed in on his head a bit more snugly this time.
After Willie was Left Fielder Ted Williams. Always a steady hitter, the extremely slender left fielder waited patiently for his pitch and hit a hard grounder past the shortstop into right center field. Because the Mustangs’ center fielder, Dave Manning, was unable to get a good grip on the ball at first and bobbled it for a few seconds before he got control, Willie was able to move up to second base, and Brooks to third, before being stopped.
However, that was the best the Falcons could do that inning for both John Bench, the Catcher, and Mike Maldonado struck out and Ryan Sandberg hit a ground ball straight back to Nixon who threw him out at first while he was still a good three feet away.
Rob Gibson, the Pitcher, had been waiting on deck and would now have to go back out to the Pitcher’s box instead, and take his turn at bat when the Mustangs had recorded their third out against the Falcons.
The score stood at five to two in favor of the Mustangs when Jamie Nixon came up to bat for the first time. Unfortunately Jamie’s hard hit ball went directly to the Falcons’ left fielder, Ted Williams and he was out before he was three quarters of the way down the base path to first. The Mustangs’ leadoff hitter Rafael followed him. Rafael had better success when a curve ball over the inside of the plate was in just the right position for him to hit it to straightaway center and over the head of Willie. That hit advanced him to second base with a double. Pete and Dave both managed singles, as did Noah Greene, which brought Scott to the plate again. This time Scott hit a double and that brought Pete and Noah across home plate to up the score to nine to two on the heels of Dave who had scored on Noah’s single. Unfortunately Mark Ferguson and Paul McGovern were both thrown out at first base, which left Scott stranded.
Now it was the Falcons turn to bat. Rob McGovern, much as Scott was wont to do, strode purposefully up to home plate. His first swing of the at bat was at a ball that was slightly below his knees. He missed and Val called “strike one”. The second and third balls were a bit higher. In fact they were a bit too high and Val called “ball one” and “ball two”. The fourth ball was in a perfect position but Rob misjudged it and swung too hard missing completely and turning in a half circle when he was thrown off balance.
“Ha, ha, ha,” Johnny laughed. “Very good Rob. Now I know the Mustangs ain’t got nothin’ to worry about if that’s the best you can do.”
“Oh, pipe down Johnny!” exclaimed Kevin. “I don’t see you up there playing.”
“That’s ‘cause I got more sense than to let my brother talk me into such nonsense,” Johnny said to his friend. “You all look pretty silly standing up there trying to hit those balls.” Looking up from his seat on the ground he added, “And those so-called uniforms don’t do nothin’ for ya!”
“Oh Johnny…” Rico said as he joined them.
“What’s up, Rico?”
“Oh, it’s not what’s up,” Rico said as he raised a bucket of icy water he had finagled out of the ladies at the concession stand. “It’s what’s about to come down.”
“What?” Johnny asked still fixing Kevin with a dirty look.
“It’s about to rain – on you that is!” Rico said as he dumped the bucket of water over Johnny’s head – spraying poor, innocent Lady at the same time.
Johnny spluttered and coughed and shook his head as the cold water cascaded down his face. His dark hair clung to his head and his shirt clung to him like a second skin. His leather pants were damp about to the knee and stuck to his legs enough to make it difficult for him to get up. Get up he did, however, and went straight for his laughing friend who had, by now, tossed the bucket aside and was preparing to make good his escape.
Poor Lady, very much the innocent bystander, rose to her feet and shook herself to rid her coat of as much of the water she’d been hit with as she could. Then she started barking excitedly as Johnny took off after Rico and Kevin who were laughing at him. The two young men split up making it more difficult for Johnny to catch up so he decided to get the one that had actually done the deed.
The three young men laughing and shouting and the excited dog barking drew attention away from the game briefly. Val didn’t try to stop anything – he figured it wasn’t his territory and Johnny, whom he’d accused of being nosy a while back, probably had it coming.
Murdoch took a step toward them only to be restrained by Jim Talbot’s hand on his arm. Jim shook his head at him with a grin, “Let them be. It’s nothing but high spirits among a trio of jokesters. If they get too out of hand Gabe will put a stop to it.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Gabe started toward the younger men. Johnny had managed to catch up with Rico and was wrestling with him while Kevin tried to separate them. However, all three of them were laughing so hard there was no damage being done to each other though they did come a little too close to knocking over a barrel of water. That merited a scolding from Maura Talbot who, along with Teresa O’Brien, was trying to keep ahead of the dish washing while other ladies sold goodies over the counter and from trays and baskets while walking among the spectators.
“Boys! It’s a little hard to do dishes if we don’t have water!” Maura scolded. “Take your nonsense elsewhere before I take a broom to you!”
“Yes, ma’am, sorry ma’am,” Rico apologized for the three of them before impishly splashing Johnny with more water and running for all he was worth away from the refreshments area.
“That’s enough you clods!” Gabe bellowed in mock sternness. “Knock it off or I’ll throw the lot of you in a cell until the game is over.”
“Aw Gabe, we’re just having a little fun with Johnny,” Kevin said. “And he started it.”
“I know perfectly well who started it,” Gabe said. “If you’re going to throw water and wrestle and run around do it where you won’t disrupt the game – which, by the way, two of you are involved in.”
Walking away, mumbling to himself about juvenile behavior, Gabe made the rounds watching for anyone looking to cause real trouble. For their part, the three pranksters just laughed and started joking around again until it was time for Kevin and Rico to take the field. It wasn’t long either and, when they had gone back out on the field, Johnny started plotting how he would get back at them. It seemed to him that they should be as wet as he was. Quietly slipping away he borrowed a couple of buckets and went to the nearest well for which the town was named and filled them. Upon returning to the game he found a place where he could stash the now water filled containers until he needed them.
The game went on with the score first in favor of the Falcons, then in favor of the Mustangs, then in favor of the Falcons again until the bottom of the eighth inning. With the score ten to eight in favor of the Mustangs, the Falcons’ second baseman Ryan Sandberg came to the plate and promptly hit a hard line drive to right field which allowed him to score a triple. Rob Gibson who hit a single allowing Ryan to score the Falcons ninth run followed him. Two more singles by Kevin and Rico and the score was tied at ten. The Mustangs weren’t convinced that it was over but things weren’t looking good right then. When Brooks Robinson hit a double followed by Willie who smoked a double as well things looked even bleaker. All of a sudden the Falcons had figured out how Jamie Nixon pitched to each one of them and they were taking advantage of it. At long last, five batters later, that half inning was over and the Mustangs were trailing by three runs.
They were not deterred or completely discouraged though – no siree. Not the Lancer Mustangs. Captain Scott held a strategy meeting with his teammates and set the course they would follow for the next few batters. With only three outs remaining to them they had to do something – and quick or they’d lose!
“Look fellas,” he said desperately. “We’re down by three and this is our last chance. Here’s what we’re going to do and I hope it works.”
The meeting over, Jamie Nixon took his place in the batter’s box. Squaring off he managed to bunt a base hit and got to first base a split second before the ball did. Kevin looked pleadingly at the first base referee, Dave Pittman, who shook his head negatively that his wish was in vain - Jamie was safe. Next up was Rafael Mendoza who struck out. Pete Wilkins followed him and popped up to left center field. Two down. Now it was Dave Manning’s turn. Dave managed a double, which moved Jamie over to third base. With runners at second and third Noah Greene came up to bat. Four pitches later, for Rob was a bit frustrated and had lost some of his control, Noah was standing at first base with a walk. Now it was Scott’s turn. Seemingly calm he took his time in choosing the bat he wanted to use. He tried several until he came to the one he had used to hit the grand slam earlier. He recognized it by the nick in the knob at the bottom of the handle. It wasn’t very big but it was the only bat that had it. Scott wasn’t by nature a superstitious man but this bat was one that he was very comfortable with. He liked the length and the weight of it.
Sure of himself now he stepped into the batter’s box, ensured that his gloves were properly in place and took a pair of practice swings before settling in to await Rob’s delivery.
“Come on Scott, you can do it!” Johnny called from the sidelines where he sat with a blanket draped around him courtesy of Jelly the worrywart who was afraid he’d catch cold.
The next pitch was straight down the middle but Scott didn’t swing - he didn’t like the location. To him that pitch looked to be a bit too low.
“Come on Scott,” yelled his second baseman, Mark Ferguson. “Bring ‘em home. Let’s show these Falcons what the Mustangs are made of!”
“Ball two.” Val announced the third pitch.
Noah took a short lead off of first and had to leap back quickly in order to avoid being thrown out when Rob threw to Kevin. The other base runners were simply keeping an eye on the Pitcher and their captain to see what was going to happen. They were ready to run as soon as Scott made contact.
The next ball was low and inside for ball three but it was followed by a second strike. Now the count was three and two, in other words, in twentieth and twenty-first century terminology, it was a full count. If the next pitch was good and Scott didn’t swing and make good contact the game would be over.
Taking a deep breath and concentrating solely on the job at hand Scott watched the next pitch come his way. With a mighty swing he sent that ball sailing over the head of the left fielder, Ted Williams, and all of the runners circled the bases safely before the ball was back in play.
The crowd went wild as it became obvious that Scott was finally out of his hitting slump. It was an exciting game and there was still half an inning to go. The Falcons were tough competition and the Mustangs would have to fight to keep them from scoring enough to come from behind and win the game. As it turned out those were the last runs the Mustangs would score as Mark Ferguson struck out when he came to bat after Scott.
Now it was the Falcons’ turn and they were a determined lot. Kevin came up to bat with a steely look in his eye. He didn’t scare Jamie Nixon for all the glares he sent his way and, unfortunately for Kevin, he ended up striking out. Jamie knew that victory for the Mustangs was riding on his shoulders as much as, if not more than, anyone else’s and he was pitching very carefully. No wild pitches from him! No sir!
After Kevin came Rico. Rico fared better but not much. He rapped one behind the second baseman and managed to get to first base – just barely ahead of the throw. Now it was Brooks’ turn again. He hit one straight to Rafael who threw Rico out at second. The Falcons were down to their last out.
Willie came to bat after Brooks. Two balls and one strike later he hit a pop up that was easily snared by the Mustangs’ Catcher and the game was over. The Mustangs had won. Being the good sports that both teams were the Mustangs shook hands with their opponents and the Falcons congratulated Scott and company on a hard fought game.
It was during this interlude before everyone started to gather their equipment and such before heading for home that Johnny got his revenge on his buddies. While Rico and Kevin, in particular, were busy talking with Murdoch and Jim Talbot, among others, he slipped away to where he had stashed the two buckets of water. As quietly as a stalking mountain lion he picked up one bucket and walked up behind Kevin.
“I have something for ya,” Johnny said with a gleam in his eye and a barely suppressed chuckle.
“This!” Johnny dumped the bucket of water over Kevin’s head causing him to gasp and sputter as Johnny had earlier. Then, while Kevin was shaking his head and Rico was laughing at him the dark-haired Lancer dashed off and retrieved his other bucket.
“Here’s one for you, too, Rico!” A second later Rico, too, was gasping and sputtering as he had a bucket of water poured over his head as well. “Now we’re even!”
Everyone around them, including Gabe and Val, laughed heartily. They had known that Johnny would somehow, somewhere, turn the tables on his friends. Nobody standing close to them minded getting a little wet for it was a good joke to see the two members of the Falcons get their just desserts. If there was anything Johnny, Rico and Kevin were noted for when they were together it was the silly pranks and such.
A few days later a mysterious invitation arrived at Lancer addressed to Scott but meant for the entire Lancer Mustangs baseball team. A group calling themselves the Brownies was challenging them to a one-time only baseball game at the diamond in Green River the first Saturday after the regular season ended. A small admission price would be charged and all the proceeds from the admission and the refreshments would go to the Bear Creek Relief Fund. The sender of the invitation said that if the Mustangs accepted the challenge they should post a notice on the bulletin board outside the Sheriff’s Office.
“What do you make of this?” Scott asked his father.
“Sounds like a challenge to me, Scott,” Murdoch replied as he looked at the invitation.
“I know but who are these Brownies and why challenge the Mustangs? There are other teams besides us.”
“What’s the matter, brother?” asked Johnny who had come into the room as his brother told their father about the challenge. “Afraid of an unknown.”
“No,” Scott retorted. “I’m not afraid – just curious. Why haven’t we heard of this team before now?”
“Maybe they wanted to remain…what’s that word you like to use? Inco..incon…”
“Incognito?” his father supplied helpfully.
“Yeah. That’s it. Incognito. Maybe they just don’t want to be known yet.”
“You know, little brother,” Scott said suspiciously. “You sound like you know something about this. Are you holding out on me?”
“Me? Would I do that?” Johnny asked grinning like Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire cat.
“Yes, you would,” his brother answered.
“Well even if I did,” Johnny said, “and I ain’t sayin’ I do mind you, I wouldn’t tell you ‘cause if they wanted you to know who they are they’d a told ya.”
“Johnny!” Scott was frustrated as his brother just walked away and went off to put Barranca away for the night.
“Don’t look at me, son,” Murdoch said as he rubbed his nose and tried to remain serious. “I know no more than you do and I doubt if your brother is going to be forthcoming with any information.”
“That’s obvious,” Scott mumbled as he exited the room to get his baseball shoes. The Mustangs had a practice scheduled for seven o’clock. It was time to get ready and that meant exchanging his boots for his shoes.
“So what do you all think?” Scott asked his team. “Do we accept the challenge from this team that calls themselves the Brownies?”
“Sure, why not?” Pete Wilkins asked. “It might be fun to play one game just for fun and they did say that the money goes toward the Bear Creek Relief Fund just like all the other money we’ve raised.”
The others all agreed. These Brownies didn’t sound like much of a threat – at least not in the same manner that the Coyotes were. Rick Donaldson was still the only player that anyone on any other team could tolerate. He was a decent kid – only eighteen – who had the misfortune to be related to Dana Simpson. Simpson had taken him in out of a sense of duty when Rick’s mother became unable to care for him any longer due to a lingering, and ultimately, fatal illness.
“It’s settled then. I’ll write a note of acceptance and have it posted on the bulletin board outside of Val’s office tomorrow.” Scott folded the letter and put it in his breast pocket. “Now let’s get to work. We still have our work cut out for us if we’re going to win the championship in October.”
The summer wore on. Bret Maverick made it to his game in San Diego only because he constantly hounded Dana Simpson about the money he owed him. Nobody, least of all Bret, knew where Simpson finally came up with the money though Bret had a pretty good idea. Word was spreading among the saloon regulars that Simpson was gambling on a regular basis and had had to sell some of his cattle to settle his debts. It was the only thing that was keeping him out of jail right now.
Bret had limited success in the game in San Diego as far as his poker playing was concerned. He was far more successful in the smaller towns he passed through on his way back to Green River, only it had nothing to do with poker. The gambler was picking up information on Dana Simpson’s activities. Information he was anxious to share with his new friend, Johnny Lancer, just as soon as he could get back there. Information he didn’t want intercepted by way of a telegram.
Meanwhile the summer dragged on. August turned into September and the teams that had been formed were slowly eliminated from any chance of being in the playoffs. The Falcons and the Pilgrims fared better than most but still came up shy of enough wins to face the Coyotes and the Mustangs to go for the championship. The other teams were eliminated early on but all had a good time playing and rooting for their favorites among the teams that were left.
Haying season came and went. The Lancers and the Bar T hands pitched in and helped each other get their hay cut, dried and stacked. Then came the hard part – baling. There was no machine that could do it all in the area yet. Threshing machines yes, but there were no wheat farmers in the San Joaquin – just dairy farmers and those who raised chickens or hogs or vegetables.
The beginning of September was as hot as August had been. Men sweated and burned and sneezed as they cut and stacked the hay. Then they loaded it onto wagons to be stored in the barns for feed to get them through the winter. Though it was mild compared to other parts of the country they weren’t taking any chances on a freak snowstorm stranding them without feed for their stock. Getting feed from town was an option but not if snowstorms kept the suppliers back east from getting it to California.
Johnny and Scott spent as much time at the Bar T, as they did at home. In fact, it was after Lancers’ hay was in that they, along with a few other hands, rode over to pitch in. Tim O’Connor was still not up to that kind of labor yet so he was spending his time mending harness and grooming horses while the men who usually did that work were out taking his place in the hayfields. Tim was almost fully recovered from the beating he had taken but the ribs were still tender. Jim Talbot refused to let the boy risk any setbacks by doing heavy work before they were completely healed.
Finally, the haying was done. In gratitude for their help – and just because of their friendship – Jim and Maura invited the Lancers to dinner the afternoon of the championship game. The last day of the haying had dawned clear and hot. The men had worked so steadily that by noon the last of the hay had been cut and was stacked. In about a week, when the hay had had a chance to dry completely, they would take it, bale it and store it in the lofts of the barns. For now the stacks stood in the fields where they were, covered by waterproof canvas in case it rained before they were ready to move it.
During the last month there had been more threats and rumors of threats by the Coyotes. Everyone did agree on one thing though – Rick Donaldson was not involved. The threats were attributed to Mark Curry and Dana Simpson mostly. However, Lombard and Beech were also said to have approached some of the other players. Those who refused to be bribed were threatened. Those who were not frightened off were beaten – some worse than others. Tim O’Connor had been one of them. The problem was that those who were beaten were set upon in a dark street or alley and never saw their attackers so there was nothing Val, Gabe or Sam Jayson, who was the sheriff in Morro Coyo, could do about it. Without witnesses they couldn’t press charges.
Scott was one of the few who had spoken up the first time he was approached. Since the night he had turned down Simpson’s offer to throw the games to the Coyotes, Johnny had been hovering around keeping an eye on his brother. No harm would befall Scott if Johnny had anything to say about it. By the night of the final game, however, Scott was tired of his brother always being one step behind him if not right next to him. Even at home Johnny was never far from Scott’s side if he could help it.
“Scott?” Johnny knocked on his brother’s door. “It’s time to leave for dinner at the Talbots. You ready to go yet?”
Scott opened the door. He was definitely not ready to go for he didn’t have a shirt on, his uniform was laid out on the bed and he had shaving soap on his face.
“You all go ahead without me, I’ll catch up later.”
“I’m not so sure that’s such a good idea, brother,” Johnny said with concern. “You know those Coyotes are just waiting to catch you alone. They want you and your hitting streak out of the game badly enough to do just about anything.”
“Oh, come on Johnny! What are they going to do? Kill me?” Scott was a bit exasperated with what he thought was an overly protective attitude from his little brother. “Go on. I’ll be fine. You don’t want to keep Mrs. Talbot waiting. I hear she made a double batch of chocolate pixies just for you. I’ll be along in a while.”
“Welllll…” Johnny hesitated. He loved Maura’s cooking but he was still reluctant to leave his brother alone with the big game in just a few hours.
“Go on. The whole reason she’s having dinner this early is because of the game tonight. She wants us all to eat and be able to relax a little before we ride into Green River.”
“If you’re sure…” Johnny was still worried about what could happen.
“Johnny, they’re not going to invade Lancer just to get to me. I’ll be fine.”
Reluctantly Johnny left to catch up with his father, Teresa and Jelly who were outside waiting for them. Murdoch wasn’t especially happy about Scott’s decision either but let it go. Like Scott he didn’t think the Coyotes would dare to do anything to him at home. Scott could join them at the Bar T and then they’d ride into Green River together with the ever-alert ex-gunfighter keeping a weather eye out for trouble on the way.
An hour later Scott went out to the barn to saddle Ranger. After several disastrous incidents with his old horse, Charlie, Johnny had insisted that Scott replace him. Ranger was a sixteen-hand bay with two white stockings and a star on his forehead. He was well trained by Johnny, steady and reliable. In short, Ranger didn’t spook at little things like rabbits and thunderstorms, and wasn’t prone to putting his feet in gopher holes and throwing himself and his rider to the ground as Charlie had done at Easter a few years ago.
Glad to be free, temporarily at least, of the hovering presence of his brother and the nagging of Jelly whose favorite topic was the way the Mustangs did not take care of their bats and balls and the bases he’d made, Scott was not as alert as he should have been as he rode toward the Bar T. Thoughts of the upcoming game, as well as the strange events of the past few weeks that had led to the championship coming down to the Mustangs or the Coyotes, filled his mind as he rode toward the Talbots and the sumptuous dinner he knew would be waiting for him. If he knew Maura Talbot, and he thought he knew her pretty well by now, she probably had a lemon meringue pie made and chilling in the icebox waiting just for him. He was half a mile from the turnoff that went from the road to Lancer to the Bar T when three men rode out of the trees and intercepted him.
“Hold up there Lancer!” one of the men said as they approached.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Scott asked the masked men.
“We’re here to keep you company on your ride into Green River,” the apparent leader said.
“I’m not going into Green River,” Scott said. “Not yet anyway.”
“Yes, you are,” the man said. “And we’re here to make sure you get to your destination.”
“But your destination ain’t the ball field,” one of the others said with a nasty laugh.
As he finished speaking another man drove a heavy wagon out of the trees where they’d all been concealed. Pointing his pistol at Scott the leader gestured for him to dismount, which he did reluctantly, determined to find a way to escape these men. There was no chance for him though – or so it seemed – but then one of the men turned his head at the sound of a twig breaking. Seizing what seemed to be his only chance Scott jumped at the man dragging him out of his saddle. A brief struggle ensued before one of the men landed a hard right to Scott’s jaw that knocked him out completely. By the time Scott came to he was bound, gagged, blindfolded and lying in the back of the wagon with a large piece of canvas covering him. He could feel the wagon moving but had no idea which direction they were going. His kidnappers had mentioned Green River but that could have been a ruse. He struggled to free himself only to feel a pistol behind his ear.
“You quit that or you’ll feel my pistol on your head Lancer!” a gravelly voice said. “We don’t want the law getting suspicious and looking into things. The sheriff might wind up with a bullet in him if he gets too curious.”
Wherever they were headed Scott didn’t want to be responsible for Val, Gabe or Sam Jayson being hurt because of him. He ceased his struggles and tried to relax. After what seemed an eternity the wagon came to a halt and the canvas was removed. Taking a deep breath of fresh air after being hidden in that hot, stuffy space in the wagon with canvas and who knew what else on top of him, Scott was relieved to be out in the open for the moment.
That relief was short lived as the men who had kidnapped him pulled him toward the tailgate of the wagon and, none too gently, helped him down. Scott stumbled and fell to his knees as he was unable to help himself with his hands tied behind his back and the blindfold preventing him from having any idea of what was in front of, behind or next to him. Every little thing became a major obstacle and a danger to him as he was led through a seemingly open space only to climb several stairs and be shoved through a doorway.
Before he had any time to regain his equilibrium two of the men had him by the arm and were leading him across what sounded like a fairly large room. If the slight echo he could hear was any indication he would seem to have been brought into an empty barn or a warehouse. A minute later he was shoved through another door and guided – again none too gently – down a flight of stairs that seemed endless. The air grew mustier the further down he went and it was beginning to feel damp as well.
Finally the men stopped pulling and shoving and made him sit down on a large wooden crate. The crate seemed to indicate even more that it was a warehouse Scott was in but with his eyes covered he could only guess.
“Make yourself comfortable,” one of the men joked. “You’re not going anywhere for awhile. Not until that game is over with tonight. When the Mustangs have lost you’ll be taken somewhere and dropped off safe and sound. But not until then.”
“Murdoch! I’m so glad you all came,” Maura came out of the house wiping her hands on an apron to greet their friends.
“Not all, Maura,” Murdoch said as he lifted Teresa down from the buggy. “Scott’s running a little behind but he’ll be along shortly.”
“Dinner will be ready in half an hour. I do hope he’s not late.”
“Mrs. Talbot, Scott wouldn’t miss this for the world.” Johnny walked up to his surrogate mother and asked, “Now where are those double chocolate cookies Scott said you were makin’? I’m hungry enough to eat all of them and then eat dinner after.”
Maura smiled warmly at him but, in a motherly tone of voice, said, “No cookies until after you have your dinner. And don’t go giving me that pleading look of yours with those big blue eyes! After raising my three I’m very much immune to such things. After dinner you may have all you can eat.”
Everybody laughed at the put out expression on Johnny’s face. It was apparent that he had expected that look to work. Jelly drove the buggy over to the barn where one of the Bar T’s hands took charge of old Zanzibar by unharnessing him and turning him loose in the small corral to the right where he could rest and relax until it was time to leave. Johnny and Murdoch had ridden their horses over and now tied them at the hitching post outside the house. Everyone but Maura gathered on the porch to talk while they waited for Scott to arrive and dinner to be served. Precisely one half hour later dinner was ready but Scott was nowhere in sight.
“I thought you said Scott would be right along,” Jim said to his friend. “It’s not like him to be late. Could something have happened?”
“He said he’d be right behind us. Maybe his horse went lame,” Murdoch said trying to make light of Scott’s absence. “That would delay him.”
“Come in and eat,” Maura said. “I’m sure he’ll be right along.”
Reluctantly they did as she said but Murdoch and Johnny exchanged looks with Jim that said they would be leaving immediately after dinner if Scott didn’t show up soon. It wasn’t in his nature to be late and if his horse had pulled up lame or anything else had come up he would have sent word with Cipriano or one of the other hands.
Dinner was a somber affair. The missing Lancer was on everyone’s mind. It was all Scott’s father and brother could do to sit through the meal and not wolf it down. As it was they all kept looking anxiously toward the hall hoping that Scott would walk through the door into the dining room apologizing for his tardiness at any moment. When that didn’t happen everyone started to get concerned – no one more so than his father and brother who knew about the threats and the beatings that had been taking place.
“Excuse us Maura,” Murdoch said as he and Johnny rose of one accord. “I don’t know why Scott never showed up but I think we’d better find out what happened.”
Teresa and Jelly started to rise as well but were stopped by Murdoch.
“No, you two stay here, help Maura with the dishes and get yourselves into Green River for the game. Tell the rest of the Mustangs that Scott’s been delayed and have Mike Flannigan get them warmed up. We’ll find Scott and bring him in.”
So saying he and Johnny left the house to get their horses followed by Jim who went to the barn to get his own horse, Pintauro.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Murdoch asked his friend.
“With you,” was the reply. “I don’t believe, any more than you do, that Scott’s horse went lame. After what happened to Tim I wouldn’t put anything past Simpson and his pals. They want that championship badly enough to do anything.”
Together the three men rode out of the yard as the women and Jelly watched from the house. Jelly wanted to be in on the search but orders were orders. And, since Jelly was the equipment manager for the Mustangs, it was important for him to be there before the game so that the team had their bats and such.
They were scarcely a quarter mile from the turnoff when they spotted Ranger standing by the side of the road. With his reins on the ground the gelding had considered himself to be ground hitched and hadn’t moved more than a few inches from the spot where Scott had dismounted. Johnny was out of his saddle in a flash and quietly approached Ranger so as not to spook him.
“I can’t find nothin’ wrong with him,” he told the older men after a quick but thorough examination. “And there’s no blood on the saddle.”
Leading Ranger over to his father he went back to look around. It didn’t take long for him to locate and identify the signs of Scott’s struggle before being knocked out and loaded in the wagon.
“There’s been a fight here Murdoch,” he said. “There’s signs of a struggle. Most of the tracks are light as if whoever was here was just standing or sitting on their horses. There are other tracks that seem to be heavier – as if they were lifting something heavy. Looks like they had a wagon too.”
Johnny looked around and followed the tracks back to the trees where they originated. Then he followed them from there to where he could see the signs of a struggle and from there to the road to Green River.
“It looks to me like several riders and a wagon waited in those trees over there,” he said indicating the fir trees that stood to the right of the turnoff. “Three men approached Scott on horseback. The tracks tell me that those men plus another – probably Scott – dismounted their horses. There was a struggle and something heavy was loaded into that wagon and driven off toward Green River.”
Walking over and remounting Barranca he said, “it looks to me like Scott was on his way to the Bar T and met up with some men he didn’t want to see. Then he got into a fight and willingly or otherwise got into that wagon. Once he was in it they drove off toward Green River. At least that’s what the tracks seem to show.”
“Let’s follow them and see if that’s where they go,” Jim said. “If they turn off or split up then we’ll do the same. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Murdoch answered.
“Ok,” Johnny said as he turned Barranca toward the tracks. “But I’ll do the trackin’.”
So saying he started following the trail left by the wagon, stopping every now and then to double check. The closer they got to Green River the harder it became though. It was Saturday and all the ranchers and farmers from the area were in town, either on business or gathering at the field where the game was scheduled to be played. Pretty soon Johnny was unable to track the wagon they were trying to locate.
“There’s too many wagons in and out of here now,” he told his father and Jim. “I can’t tell which one is the one we’re following any more.”
“There’s just one thing to do then,” Talbot said. “We split up here and ask around. Somebody’s bound to have noticed something suspicious or maybe even seen Scott. Maybe we’re mistaken in thinking that he’s in trouble. Maybe he’s already at the field and wondering where we are.”
“Jim, you don’t really believe that do you?” Murdoch asked. “You know Scott wouldn’t miss dinner at your place without a good reason. And if he suddenly became ill he’d have sent a messenger.”
“You’re right, Murdoch,” Jim said with a sigh. “It’s purely wishful thinking on my part – and trying to cheer you two up.”
“Johnny you take the north side of town, Jim you take the south end. I’ll take the east side and we’ll meet at the playing field in an hour.”
“Shouldn’t we let Val know what we suspect?” Jim asked.
“We should but he’s probably at the field already. If we haven’t found Scott by the time we all meet up we’ll tell him then.”
The three men split up and started their search. The north end of town was where the livery stable was and also the saloon, Zeek’s barbershop and other businesses. The south end was where the road went toward Cross Creek and the railroad station. There were a few shacks along there and the stage depot and blacksmith shop along with Mayor Higgs’ General Store and the Widow Hargis’ store. The east side was mostly populated with warehouses, some of which were falling apart after years of disuse. The searchers had no way of knowing that it was in the cellar of one of these abandoned warehouses that Scott was being held prisoner until the championship game had been played. The men who were holding him were about to announce to the Mustangs that, unless they threw the game, Scott Lancer would be killed.
The object of the trio’s desperate search was cold and miserable in his prison. He didn’t know it but he was in one of those old warehouses – one that had been abandoned for quite a few years. It was the perfect place to keep him hidden. It was dark, dank and still looked abandoned. Simpson – for indeed that was who was behind Scott’s kidnapping – had made sure that the building continued to look abandoned. He’d even had his men hide the wagon at the livery stable and wipe out the tracks in the yard. Once that was done he’d assigned two men to guard Scott. They were toughs he’d found in Morro Coyo who wouldn’t be known as well in Green River or Spanish Wells in case they ran into Val or Gabe, if word got out about Scott’s disappearance.
The cellar Scott was hidden in was deep enough that the temperature was about thirty degrees cooler than the outside temperature. Not even his flannel uniform shirt was enough to keep him warm. He was shivering and his hands were numb from the cold, and from the circulation to them being cut off due to the rope that was binding them. Listening hard he could tell that his guards were not in the same room as he was – wherever he was. Hesitantly, feeling each step of the way with one foot before making a move, he found his way to something that was tall enough, and solid enough that he could try to rub the blindfold off without falling over if that object shifted. It seemed like forever but in reality it was only a couple of minutes before he reached his objective. The framework to the door through which he had been led was now immediately to his right according to his shoulder. Scott leaned against it and rubbed until his cheek was sore before he was finally able to remove the blindfold.
Blinking against the difference in light, though the room he was in only had one very small window set high up in the wall, he took stock of his predicament. The room he was in was very small and narrow. Even if he were able to free himself he’d never be able to get through that window for all he was “skinny as a rail” according to Maura Talbot. Trying to remain calm Scott looked around the room to see if he could find anything that would be useful in getting himself free from his bonds. His initial search was fruitless but then, accidentally, he came upon a nail that was protruding from a beam in the doorframe. His captors hadn’t been quite as thorough as they thought they had been when they chose this particular room to lock Scott up in. The door was old and solid but it was beginning to sag as the frame, not built as solidly as it should have been, was beginning to rot. Sticking out of this rotting wood was the instrument of his salvation, so to speak.
Gingerly Scott backed up to the frame and began rubbing the rope binding his wrists to the protruding nail, wincing as it occasionally made more contact with his wrist than with the rope. His hands were becoming slippery from the bloody scratches when the ropes finally parted and his hands were free. He took a moment to rub some feeling back into his hands and warm his arms before removing the gag. Then he set about trying to find a way out of his predicament without tipping off his captors that he was free. That was no easy task for the door was locked from the outside and he didn’t have any idea how he would manage to get it open. Looking around he found that the hinges, for some strange reason, were on the inside. He thought maybe, with some help from his belt or a board, he could manage to get the pins out that held the door in place.
It took some doing, and several times he stopped in a mild state of panic thinking he heard his guard coming to check on him. Apparently he was wrong for the noise faded out and he went back to forcing the pins. After a long period of time, maybe an hour, he got the last one out and slowly pulled the door from its frame and set it aside. Scott didn’t know what time it was but he figured it had to be pretty close to game time. He’d been half an hour late leaving for the Bar T and it was a good half hour ride to the road that led to the main house. The thought of the meal he’d missed made his stomach growl. He hadn’t had anything to eat since he’d stopped for lunch around noon and that had only been half a sandwich and some water. He had planned on making up for it at dinner for Maura Talbot was an excellent cook. Besides that she knew good old New England cooking – something Scott sometimes missed quite a bit since he’d moved to California.
As quietly as he could Scott crept out the door stopping every few feet to listen for the approach of his guards. Hearing nothing he approached the staircase he could see to his left. Gingerly he tested each step to see if they would continue to hold his weight and to make sure that they didn’t creak loudly and give him away. After what seemed an eternity he was at the top of the stairs testing the door that he thought probably led out to the main floor of whatever building he was in. Hearing nothing he opened the door just a crack to see if there was anyone in sight. The smell of cigarette smoke told him that at least one man was in the vicinity but it seemed that he was on the other side of the floor to ceiling stack of wooden crates Scott could see.
Taking a chance that the man could not see or hear him Scott ran for the door on the other side of the room. He was within fifty yards of getting out the door to freedom when he heard someone shout.
“Hey! He’s loose! Find him!”
While Scott was trying to make his way to freedom his father, brother and their neighbor were scouring the town looking for him. Nobody they talked to had seen Scott since he’d been in Green River two days earlier to pick up supplies. Almost all of them remembered that he had had another encounter with Dana Simpson regarding the championship game and that Scott had vehemently refused to accept Simpson’s bribe to throw the game to the Coyotes. Angry words had been exchanged before Scott was able to take his leave of the overbearing rancher and head for home. It was a half hour before the scheduled game time when the two Lancers and Jim met up at the playing field. The Mustangs and Coyotes were there preparing for the big game. The Mustangs were all gathered around Cipriano who had taken charge in the absence of any of the Lancers. Jelly was there as well and Teresa, rather than working at the refreshment stand, was waiting anxiously with Maura Talbot by her side, for news. Lady had ridden in the buckboard with Cipriano and was anxiously looking for her pal Johnny to show up.
“Any luck?” Maura asked.
“None.” Her husband sighed as he wrapped his arm around her. “We found signs of a struggle near the road to our place and Scott’s horse was standing there as if he’d been deliberately ground hitched. There’s no sign of Scott though. We’ve asked everyone we’ve seen. Nobody has any idea where he is.”
“I’ll bet we know somebody who does,” Johnny said looking over at the Coyotes and their team captain.
“We can guess but we can’t prove anything,” his father said.
Val Crawford saw them and came over from where he had been talking with Gabe. Gabe had taken the night off so that he could attend this game. He’d become very interested in watching as many games as he could. He figured he deserved the night off and had left Spanish Wells in the capable hands of a part-time deputy.
“Where’s Scott?” Val asked. “It’s almost time to start the game.”
“We don’t know,” Murdoch said. “He didn’t show up for dinner at the Bar T. The tracks we found led into Green River but we lost them among all the other wagons.”
Quickly Murdoch explained to the two lawmen what they believed had transpired. Lady came to stand by Johnny and whimpered when she sensed how upset he was. Gently she nudged his hand with her nose and Johnny gave her an automatic pat on the head. Suddenly, looking down at her, he had an idea.
“Jelly! You got Scott’s gloves with you? The ones he always wears when he bats?”
“Yeah, but what good will they do ya?”
“Lady here can try and track Scott in town if she has his gloves to work with.”
“That’s a good idea son,” Murdoch praised Johnny. “Let’s go back to where we lost the wagon tracks and start from there. If Scott has recently been on the ground she should be able to pick up his trail and find him.”
“You want me and Gabe to come with you?” Val asked.
“No. You stay here and get ready to start the game,” Murdoch said. Turning to his friend he asked, “Jim, would you stay and manage the Mustangs until we get back? Cipriano and Jelly can manage the coaching and the equipment like they always do.”
“I’d rather help you look for Scott,” Jim said, “but if that’s what you want me to do, I’ll do it – for Scott’s sake. I hope you find him soon.”
“Hurry Murdoch,” Teresa said. “If somebody kidnapped him he might be hurt.”
“Don’t worry darling,” Murdoch said to his ward. “We’ll find him and bring him here as soon as we do.”
The two Lancer men, accompanied by Lady and carrying Scott’s gloves, set out for the center of town where they had lost the tracks to the wagon they believed Scott had been in – probably hidden in the back.
Stopping in front of Mayor Higgs’ store Johnny knelt down and held Scott’s gloves out to Lady to get a good lead from.
“Find Scott Lady,” he said as he allowed her to smell the gloves. “Find Scott.”
Lady finished smelling the gloves and started sniffing around. The trail in front of the store was several days old but Lady followed it in and out of the store and kept casting around to different places trying to find it. Suddenly she stopped, ears pricked toward the side of town where Scott had been taken, and, without warning took off barking.
“I’d say she’s got the scent,” Johnny said to his father. “Let’s go.”
The two men hastened to follow the collie as she ran, barking wildly, toward the seemingly abandoned warehouses. By the time they caught up with her she was scratching at the door of the one where Scott was incarcerated.
“Do you smell Scott, girl?” Johnny asked as he leaned over her. “Is he in that warehouse?”
Lady kept scratching at the door and whining. She could hear what they couldn’t and that was the voices of Scott and two other men. She could also hear the fear in Scott’s voice as he tried to evade the two armed men and make good his escape. Johnny reached for the knob and quietly opened the door. His father followed right behind him. Both men drew their guns before they entered.
“Give it up kid,” one of the men shouted. “You’re trapped and you know it!”
“Come on out and give yourself up Lancer,” the other one said. “All the man who hired us wants is to keep you on ice until the game is over. We ain’t gonna hurt ya!”
“I don’t see Scott but he can’t be too far away,” Johnny whispered to his father.
“I don’t see him either,” Murdoch said. “Those two men sound like they’re about halfway down the room behind that tallest stack of crates. See if Lady can find him without giving him away. We need to get him to safety or take those two men.”
Johnny spoke quietly to Lady and sent her off on her quest. She was smart enough, and well trained by Johnny, that she stayed out of sight of the men who were hunting Scott. She was able, in just a few short minutes, to locate Scott and settled in to protect him until the others could get to them. For his part Scott was very happy to see Lady for he knew that it meant that, at the very least, his brother was close by. Lady remained alert to any and all danger that Scott might be in and would remain so until his ordeal was over.
Meanwhile Johnny had quietly gone off to the left and Murdoch to the right and they were slipping, as quietly as possible, from stack to stack to find the exact location of the men who were threatening Scott. It took them a few minutes but finally Johnny found his quarry.
“Drop the gun mister!” he said.
The older of the two men who had been holding Scott prisoner did as he was told. Johnny was much too close for him to try anything especially since Johnny had cocked his pistol before giving the command. In short order Murdoch, too, had his quarry and the two Lancers ordered the men to move toward the door.
“Scott? Lady?” Johnny called his brother and their dog. “It’s all right. You can come out now. We’ve got the two guys.”
Scott emerged from his hiding place with Lady on his heels. His face was a little pale and he had a scrape on the right side where he had rubbed against the crate in the basement to remove the blindfold. There were a couple of scratches on his wrists where the nail he had used to free himself had cut him instead of the rope but all in all he didn’t look too bad. Mostly he looked relieved to see his father and brother.
“You ok brother?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, thanks to you two,” Scott replied. “How did you find me and where am I?”
“You’re in Green River. In one of those abandoned warehouses,” his father told him. “Johnny had Lady track you from the center of town but, to tell you the truth, I think when we were in front of Mayor Higgs’ store she heard you in here before we could. She took off like she was shot out of a cannon about ten minutes ago.”
The Lancers continued out the door keeping a wary eye on the two men they had just taken prisoner. When they reached the outside Scott stopped up short as he was suddenly blinded by the sunlight after having been blindfolded and locked up in the cellar of the warehouse they had just exited for several hours.
Keeping an eye on their prisoners Murdoch and Johnny stopped to let Scott adjust to the daylight again. After a moment he was fine and they continued on to the jail where Val’s temporary deputy, Rob Muir was on duty.
“Rob,” Murdoch said to the tall, husky strawberry blond, “lock these two up for kidnapping. We’ll be back later to sign the paperwork for the complaint. Right now we have to get Scott to the game.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Lancer,” the deputy said as he rose to do just that. “They’ll be here when you get back with Sheriff Crawford.”
“Could we stop somewhere and get me a cup of coffee or something?” Scott asked. “That cellar they kept me in was freezing and I’m still cold.”
“We’ll get you something at the game, Scott,” Johnny said.
“Johnny’s right, son,” Murdoch agreed as he wrapped his jacket around his son’s shoulders. “I’m sure the ladies have hot coffee and water for tea. I’m sure Val won’t have a problem with delaying the game long enough for you to get warmed up again.”
Truer words were never spoken. Val took one look at Scott’s scraped and bruised face and declared that the game would be delayed for one half hour until he got warmed up and cleaned up. Maura and Teresa smothered him with hugs and pressed a mug of hot coffee in his hands making sure that he drank it all. Lady sensing that he was still cold lay next to him. Her body heat, along with the coffee, helped Scott warm up quickly. Maura put her nursing skills to work and cleaned up the scrape on Scott’s face and the scratches on his wrists where the nail had nicked him. By the time the half hour delay was up Scott was warmed up, ready to go, and Val was brought up to date on what had transpired. He was very glad that his friend’s brother was not hurt and he was more than happy to hold the two men who had held Scott hostage. He’d get the full story from Scott after the game.
“Play ball!” Val shouted.
The Mustangs had lost the coin toss so they took the field first. Scott led his team onto the playing field as each took up their defensive position. The extra half hour had helped Jamie Nixon warm up his throwing arm while the others held an impromptu batting and fielding practice. Other than Rick Donaldson none of the Coyotes bothered to do any of that. Apparently they were all supremely confident in their abilities. Most of the onlookers felt sorry for Rick as he stood on the sidelines watching the Mustangs. If they hadn’t been playing against each other he might have approached them to see if he could join in. However, it was out of the question and he knew it as well as they did.
As always, the Coyotes first batter was their second baseman. Dave McCarthy went up to the plate and waited patiently for Jamie’s first pitch.
The second pitch came toward the plate and Val called it a ball as it was just a little bit out of the strike zone. Now came the third pitch. McCarthy swung and missed.
The next two pitches were balls. Some people were beginning to think that Jamie had warmed up too long when the next pitch came right down the middle over the plate. McCarthy swung, but made minimal contact and was thrown out at first base.
Now came the catcher, Curtis Johnson. He like the looks of the pitch and hit a double to left center field. The Coyotes had a base runner and the Mustangs were on the alert for trouble.
The next two Coyotes hitters managed to hit singles, which allowed Johnson to score. The other runners weren’t as fast so when the fifth batter hit a pop up that Noah Green caught behind home plate that ended the inning and the opposition’s chance of scoring any more this time around.
Now it was the Mustangs turn. First up was Rafael Mendoza just as he’d been first up all season - unless incapacitated. It took four pitches, two balls and a strike, before he found the pitch coming to him that he liked. He swung hard and hit a screaming line drive to left field that went straight over the heads of each Coyote player it neared. The left fielder was finally able to get a grip on it but not before Rafael had rounded second base and was safely at third.
Pete Wilkins followed Rafael and hit a single to drive the in the first run of the game. Now it was Dave Manning’s turn. Dave wasn’t so lucky. He hit a pop up that was easily caught by Henry Quiner in right field. The catcher, Noah Greene, followed Dave. He hit a double into left center field, which allowed Pete to score and put himself at second base. Then it was Scott’s turn as the score stood at two to one.
Confidently, feeling much better than he had been when his father and brother rescued him a short time earlier, Scott walked up to the plate. He had his bat in hand, the one with the notch in the handle that he’d become quite comfortable with and was ready for action.
“Ball!” Val made it quite clear to all present what he thought of that pitch.
The next pitch was a strike - the one after that another ball. Finally, on the fourth pitch, Scott saw one that he liked. Swinging hard he made perfect contact and sent the ball flying into center field where it dropped down for a base hit. Noah had tremendous speed on the base path and Cipriano was well aware of it. The big Mexican Segundo of Lancer didn’t even bother trying to signal Noah. He had no doubt, whatsoever, that the young man would be able to reach home safely. He did and the score now stood at three to nothing. Scott stopped at first knowing he wasn’t nearly as fast as Noah and unwilling to take a chance on being thrown out.
Johnny, Rico, Kevin and a myriad of other players from the other teams were cheering madly as the Mustangs started banging out hit after hit. Those three young men, Willie Mays and a few others, were all standing and sitting close to the Mustangs as the other players waited their turn at bat.
Mark Ferguson and Paul McGovern also hit singles allowing Scott to score, which brought the score to four to one. Unfortunately, for that inning, that was as far as the Mustangs would get. Hank Anderson hit a ground ball to the shortstop and Jamie Nixon hit a fly ball that was reeled in by Rick Donaldson in left field, who made a tremendous leap into the air to snag it.
The second inning was uneventful. Neither the Coyotes nor the Mustangs scored a run or even managed a base hit as each side went down in order. The third inning had the Coyotes scoring two runs and the Mustangs one. Now the score was five to three and the Coyotes were getting nervous and upset. Simpson had a lot riding on this game.
Some twenty miles or so away, Bret Maverick was racing toward Green River. He had information that indicated a potentially life-threatening situation for Johnny Lancer’s older brother, or one of his teammates, if he didn’t get there before the game was too far along. He had no way of knowing that Simpson had already had Scott kidnapped or that Johnny and Murdoch, with help from Lady, had found and rescued him though he had already freed himself.
Back in Spanish Wells the game was progressing. The fourth inning saw the Coyotes score two more runs but the Mustangs stayed ahead of them. By the end of the fourth inning the score stood six to five and the Mustangs were threatening to score even more. That was when the mysterious sinking balls started to appear. Just as the Shamrocks had said there were balls that didn’t make it more than a foot away from home plate no matter how hard they were hit. Yet when Val asked to inspect the ball it was a regulation ball that he was handed. No matter how closely he watched he couldn’t see how they were pulling the switch that he knew they had to be doing. It didn’t help that every time he asked for the ball one of the other Coyotes, or one of their supporters, created a disturbance that he had to squelch. And the spectators’ attention was inevitably drawn to it as well. The score stood at six to five now.
Scott was getting particularly frustrated as his team made contact time after time only to have the ball not go very far. This delighted the Coyotes but they didn’t dare, for the moment anyway, use their trick balls for Val was now watching them very closely and Gabe, smart man that he was, had figured out that the disturbances were deliberate so he was keeping an eye on the rest of the team and their supporters. Nobody did anything for the rest of that inning or the next. It was in the top of the sixth inning that chaos erupted and the Mustangs found themselves about to be minus a Captain.
“Curry,” Simpson said to his pitcher who was about to step into the batter’s box. “We’ve got to win this game. Take Lancer out. Charge into him, lose control of the bat and hit him but get him out of the game! He’s hitting far too well and he’s thinking too hard on how we’ve been able to keep them from hitting and scoring.”
“You want it, you got it, Mr. Simpson,” the man said. “That fella’s been a thorn in my side all summer. Him and his doubles, triples and home runs. I’ll take care of Mr. Scott Lancer during this at bat.”
Curry strode up to the plate with one thing on his mind – how to get Scott Lancer out of the game. He considered waiting until Scott was at bat again and trying to hit him with the ball but he knew that Val Crawford was watching closely for any kind of shenanigans such as that.
After thinking about it he came up with the one way he could do it and make it look like an accident – run him down at the base. By pretending to not notice that he was that close to Scott, or that he was going too fast to stop, thus making it Scott’s responsibility to move, he could probably accomplish his mission.
Bat in hand, Curry waited for Jamie Nixon’s first pitch. It was below the knees and rightly called a ball. The second pitch, too, was a ball. The third ball was in perfect position and Curry rapped it smartly out to where Mark Ferguson stood just behind second base. Mark picked it up and threw to Rafael, who was covering second for him and got the lead runner. Rafael having tagged Mike Beech at second quickly turned and threw it to Scott who was watching for the throw. He was not watching the runner who was bearing down on him.
From their vantage point, Johnny and his friends could see what was happening. Scott was focused on making the play and to do so he would need to keep his foot on the bag. He had planted himself firmly in the proper position – on the bag but not interfering with the base runner. He had no time to react to their cries of “Look out!” before Curry’s shoulder hit him in the hip and flipped him up and over. He landed hard on his shoulders and neck and struck his head on the ground as he fell. Everything went black
For a breathless moment all that was heard was the sound of Curry’s running feet as he crossed first base and headed for second. Then there was bedlam as Johnny, Rico, Willie and Kevin as well as Murdoch and Jim Talbot ran toward the fallen player. The rest of the Mustangs weren’t far behind. Val called a time-out while everyone waited to see how badly injured Scott was.
Johnny reached his brother first with Kevin and Rico right on his heels. Willie had gone running off to find Sam Jenkins. The old medico’s office wasn’t that far from the ball field and Willie knew he had seen Sam return from a call not that long ago. He knew that Johnny had enough friends with him at the moment and time was of the essence if Scott were hurt very badly. Willie wasn’t going to let there be a delay in getting help for his friend’s brother.
Johnny knelt by his brother and began to check him for injuries being careful not to move Scott if at all possible. Kevin snagged a clean cloth and a bucket of cold water from the ladies at the refreshment stand and brought them over. Rico, meantime, helped Johnny check Scott’s shoulders and arms for broken bones. It would be up to Doc Jenkins to check his neck and ask the important questions when Scott came too – something Johnny and his father fervently hoped would happen soon.
Sam arrived just as Scott was beginning to come around. His gray-blue eyes fluttered open and he tried to focus on the faces that were swimming in front of him. It was his brother’s soft drawl that penetrated the fog first.
“Scott? You okay brother?”
“Hey Scott,” Kevin said. “That was some tumble you took.”
“Back up and give me room to get to my patient!” Sam’s irritated voice was heard as he pushed his way through the crowd with help from Willie.
Setting his bag down on the ground near Scott he proceeded to examine his arms, shoulders and neck for broken bones or misaligned disks. Finding none he moved on to check his skull for any hairline cracks or fractures. Satisfied that Scott’s bone structure was intact he finished up with checking his eyes and face. Scott was pale and there was a lump on the back of his head but Sam couldn’t find any serious injuries.
“Well, looks like he got off easy this time, Murdoch,” he said to the eldest Lancer. “I can’t find anything but a lump on his head and that’s nothing for a hardheaded Scotsman!”
“Help me up,” Scott said to Rico and Johnny. “I’m fine.”
“Where do you think you’re going?” Murdoch asked his elder son.
“Back to my position,” Scott replied. “There’s a game going on.”
“You’re crazy!” Johnny exclaimed. “You were out cold for five minutes.”
“Scott, you have concussion,” Sam told him. “It’s not wise for you to get back in the game. You need to rest.”
“I have a game to finish and I’m going to finish it.”
Scott was determined but it was a wasted effort. The fall had taken more out of him than he was willing to admit. No sooner had he started walking toward first base when a dizzy spell hit and his knees buckled. Johnny and Rico were right there and caught him before he hit the ground.
“That does it!” Murdoch exclaimed. “Val! Scott’s not able to play the rest of this game. Can we postpone it?”
“Oh, now, Murdoch,” Dana Simpson said. “You can’t expect us Coyotes to put off a game just because your boy can’t play! We have to finish this today! We’ve all got other things that need tending to!”
“Shut up, Simpson,” Johnny ground out through his teeth. Turning to Val he said, “Scott’s out of the game. But if I remember the rules right we can substitute a player when one is sick or hurt. Right?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Val said. “You got something in mind?”
“Yeah, I’ll take his place!”
“You will?” Scott asked incredulously wincing as his own voice aggravated the headache he now had. “You’ve refused to play all summer – why now?”
“’Cause you need me brother. And this way I can get even legally.” Johnny grinned, “This is one time that bein’ legal will get the job done!”
“But I have you down for back up shortstop. Rafael’s not hurt.”
“That’s easy. Rafael can play first base and I’ll play short like you wanted.”
“Now, sheriff,” Simpson started to protest. “They can’t do that!”
“Who says we can’t?” Johnny demanded. “Val, is there anything in the rules that says I can’t take Rafael’s place while he takes Scott’s at first base?”
“Nope. Just says in Rule # 19 ‘A person engaged on either side, shall not withdraw during the progress of the match, unless he be disabled, or by the consent of the opposite party’.” Val grinned knowingly, “Ain’t nothin’ here says that a player can’t be switched during the replacement. Rafael takes over at first and Johnny, here, can play short stop if that’s the way Scott wants it.”
“I do,” Scott said with a grin that was just as big despite the raging headache he was developing.
“As for you, Curry,” Val said. “You’re out of the game! That was as deliberate an attempt to hurt someone as I’ve ever seen! You’re out and Baldwin is in – unless your captain wants to admit defeat right here and now!”
“But they have a back up first baseman – Reilly!” Simpson protested.
“He ain’t here,” Johnny said. “He took a spill a couple of days ago and broke his wrist. Ain’t that right doc?”
“He’s right Val,” Sam confirmed Johnny’s statement. “Bob Reilly took a spill two days ago and broke his right wrist. He won’t be playing ball, roping steers or much of anything else that requires two hands for at least a month.”
Val looked around and saw Gabe walking toward them. “Hey Gabe? You wanna take this guy over to my jail and lock him up? I’ll deal with him later – that is if the Lancers want to press charges”
“I, for one,” Gabe said, “hope they do. I’ve been wanting to throw Curry in my jail for over a year now.” Taking Curry, who had wandered over during the discussion, by the arm he said, “Come on you. You’re going to the lock up. I’m sure Rob will be very happy to have the company.”
Protesting all the way Curry was taken off to the Green River Sheriff’s Office. One look at the trio of Spanish Wells Falcons who volunteered to help Gabe “escort” his prisoner to the jail and he shut his mouth. Rico, Kevin and Willie looked ready to tear him apart.
“Are we ready to continue this game now?” Val asked. “Johnny get yourself and the rest of your team out on the field. The Coyotes still have one at bat left in this inning.” Val headed back toward home plate. “Play ball!” he shouted as he got into position again.
As planned Johnny took over at shortstop while Rafael moved over to cover first base. Curry’s at bat was counted as an out so the next man up was David McCarthy. He hit one straight at Johnny who, ranging slightly to his right, scooped it up and threw it to Rafael for the out. Now it was the Mustangs turn at bat again.
First up was Jamie Nixon who, overcome by anger over what had happened to his captain, swung wildly at three bad pitches to strike out. Rafael was up next and managed a double to right center field. He was followed by left fielder Pete Wilkins, who just beat out the throw to first base after hitting a soft grounder to short. The Coyotes’ shortstop Tony Hobson, in holding Rafael at second base, was late with his throw to first, thereby allowing Pete to reach first base safely. Following Pete was Dave Manning who, unfortunately, struck out swinging. Noah Green, the catcher was up next. He hit another thereby loading the bases for Johnny, who was up next. The score was still six to five.
The Coyotes, seeing this, thought they had an easy out because, for all they knew, Johnny had never played the game. They thought wrong for Johnny promptly smacked a triple bringing in three more runs. The score was now nine to five and Dana Simpson’s team was getting worried; Johnny was proving to be formidable on offense. What if he was as formidable on defense?
Scott, still swaying dizzily on his feet, was helped to one of the few shady spots in the area where he could watch the game. Rico, Kevin and Willie stuck close by him, protectively, as did his father and a very disgruntled Sam Jenkins. Sam didn’t like it when his patients disobeyed his orders and Scott was supposed to be resting. Sam had meant for him to rest at home – or get a room at the hotel for the night, but Scott wasn’t going to leave his team in their moment of potential glory and triumph. He was supposed to be playing – if he couldn’t play he could at least observe and coach.
The Coyotes had every reason to fear Johnny for he was gifted with lightning reflexes and not many balls that came in his direction escaped him. While the Mustangs loved him, their competition was getting extremely frustrated and irritated. Plans were being formed in Dana Simpson’s mind to get rid of Johnny.
With Curry out of the game, and locked up in Val’s jail besides, Simpson turned to Andrew Baldwin to get at Johnny. The two men held a private conference before Baldwin went out to the pitcher’s box to take up his position. There was a lot of gesturing and head shaking before the two finally came to an agreement.
The first Mustang to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning was Paul McGovern, their right fielder. He belted out a long single and was followed by third baseman Hank Anderson, who hit a pop up that the Coyotes’ catcher, Curtis Johnson, caught behind the umpire. One out and two more to go for the Mustangs. Now it was Jamie Nixon’s turn to bat. He managed a single, advancing Paul to second base. The next batter, Rafael Mendoza, then walked to load the bases. The Mustangs were primed and ready to take this game and run away with it. The Coyotes, however, had other ideas. The mysterious sinking balls would make a re-appearance in the next inning. The score still stood at nine to five.
Pete Wilkins was up next. He also hit a single bringing in the man on third. Unfortunately Dave Manning who was next struck out. After Dave came Noah Greene. Noah was patient and garnered a walk bringing in yet another run. That was when the trouble started and that trouble wasn’t just with the mysterious sinking balls. The score was now eleven to five.
Johnny was up next and he stood in the batter’s box watching Baldwin closely. He waited patiently and Val called balls twice before Johnny saw a pitch that looked good to him. Unfortunately his timing was just a little off and he swung on it and missed. The next pitch came straight at him causing him to throw himself to the ground as it whizzed right through the space where his head had been and barely missed Val as it did.
“What kind of a pitch was that?” Val demanded to know.
“I’m sorry, sheriff,” Baldwin said with a sneer. “It slipped.”
“Yeah? Well, it better not slip again!” Val told him. “You all right Johnny?”
“Fine,” Johnny answered while glaring at the opposing pitcher. “What’s the count?”
“Three balls – one strike,” Val answered.
The next ball was a strike – a legitimate one that was just above Johnny’s waistline. He swung on it but, being a little overanxious, popped it up into foul territory where it landed out of reach of any of the Coyotes. He swung on the next pitch but failed to make contact. The Mustangs now had to switch places with the Coyotes.
Bret Maverick, now about ten miles from Green River, stopped to let his horse blow and have a drink from the stream they were about to cross. The information he had on Simpson and his gambling habits, as well as some of the members of his team, was burning a hole in his pocket. He wanted to get to Johnny and show it to him so that he, and his influential father, could take action to see that no one else was hurt. This group had a reputation for playing rough and dirty. Bret didn’t mind rough, on occasion he was known to mix it up with someone, but dirty tricks didn’t set well with him. He was still smarting over the time his friend Donna got shot by her so-called fiancé, Honest Carl Jimson. The man had used Donna – sending her out to distract Bret but when he fired at the gambler Donna was accidentally caught in the crossfire. Jimson then let Bret take the rap for shooting her in the back and the chest.
When Jimson fled town, ostensibly to get a “better doctor” for Donna, Bret engineered his own release from the town jail and went after him. It was due to his “girlfriend”, a sad eyed, floppy eared camel named Fatima, that Bret survived the desert and brought Jimson back to town. Donna would recover – physically – but the emotional wounds would take a long time.
In Bret’s mind Simpson was the same kind of person. He’d do anything and everything – including cheat – to ensure that he won this championship game. Knowing that Johnny’s brother, Scott, was captain of the team opposing Simpson’s made Bret wonder what Simpson would do to get Scott out of the game. There were rumors aplenty down in Eagle Buttes about Simpson. Maybe, when confronted with the information Bret had collected they might get the man to confess, even if it were accidentally.
Scott, surrounded by his father, Sam Jenkins, Jim Talbot and nearly the whole Spanish Wells Falcons team, sat in the shade of an oak tree trying to ignore the pounding headache he had. He wasn’t about to admit it but, in some respects, he was still feeling the effects of his brief ordeal as a kidnap victim. Then there was the issue of the collision with Mark Curry at first base. The coffee had helped him warm up, as had the exercise, but he wasn’t quite himself. Any attempts by his father, or Sam, to get him to go lie down in the wagon or in a bed at the hotel met with stiff resistance. He wasn’t about to miss this game. He’d waited all season to get Johnny into a game and he wasn’t going to miss out on it now. The Falcons all backed him up – they’d been waiting and they knew Scott had been very patient but anxious. This was no time to enforce a “go home and rest” order! The Mustangs were the last decent team involved in the competition. Everyone wanted to see them whip the Coyotes – but good!
In the top of the eighth inning the Coyotes were able to capitalize on some mistakes by the Mustangs. Dave overshot a ball that landed in center field and neither Pete nor Johnny was close enough to recover it before Rick Donaldson was able to reach second base. To make matters worse, George Lombard hit another double and Rick was able to score easily from second. Henry Quiner turned a sure out into a triple when Mark Ferguson, at second, failed to catch what looked to be an easy pop fly. Because of this Lombard was able to score bringing the tally to Mustangs eleven Coyotes seven.
The Coyotes showed no more sign of stopping than the Mustangs seemed to be able, at the moment, to put a stop to their defensive errors. Johnny, acting as captain in Scott’s place, called a time out and the Mustangs’ new shortstop had a brief conference with his teammates. The brief little pep talk sent the team back out to their positions where they made it a bit more difficult for the Coyotes to score again, but not altogether impossible. The Coyotes scored several more times to tie it up and finally went ahead by three runs. With the score now fourteen to eleven in favor of the Coyotes, Jamie Nixon was kicking himself all over the place for failing to keep his balls under control. Everyone hoped he’d be able to get himself under control before the game was lost to Dana Simpson and company. The Mustangs had played hard and fair all season – they deserved to win.
In the bottom of the eighth inning the Mustangs’ lead off hitter was Mark Ferguson. Mark managed a single and was followed by Paul McGovern who also managed a single. Hank Anderson hit one that bounced off his bat into the hands of the Coyotes’ catcher, who threw it to the first baseman who returned it to the catcher. Or so it seemed. However, Hank was suspicious. There was just something about the way the ball had sounded when it came off the bat. It sounded as if somehow they were playing with a ball that was filled with straw.
“Val,” he said to their sheriff/umpire, “there’s something fishy about that ball. It didn’t sound right to me.”
“What do you mean it didn’t ‘sound’ right?” asked Coyotes’ catcher Curtis Johnson.
“It sounded strange when I hit it. Like it’s got straw in it or something.”
“Let’s see the ball,” Val said to Baldwin.
Baldwin obliged with the regulation ball he had been given by the first baseman.
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with this ball that I can see,” Val said. “Nor hear. And it feels ok.”
Johnny, at Scott’s urging, went to consult with his teammate and the umpire. He didn’t need much urging as he was becoming very suspicious himself. The Mustangs had gone from hitting everything in sight as far as they could to balls that barely made it past home plate. Lady followed on his heels sensing that there was trouble brewing.
“What’s goin’ on?” he asked.
“Hank thinks there’s something wrong with the ball he just hit but I cain’t see anything wrong with this ball.”
“Are you sure that’s the same ball?”
“You mean it ain’t?”
“I mean we’ve been suspicious for a while haven’t we?” Johnny asked. “Well, haven’t we?”
“So maybe they’ve found a way to switch them. How else could we go from hitting balls way out beyond the farthest boundary of the field to getting nowhere?”
“How about you’re just lousy players?” Johnson sneered.
Johnny turned on him and, with an effort, resisted the urge to punch him in the mouth.
“We’re not lousy players but I think you fellas are cheatin’. And we’re gonna settle it here and now!”
“You’re right, Johnny,” said a newly familiar drawl from a few feet behind him.
Bret Maverick had returned to Green River just as the Mustangs made their accusations. His arrival was timely as he carried in his pocket the evidence of Simpson’s cheating ways.
“Bret!” Johnny extended his right hand in order to shake his new friend’s.
“Johnny. Good to see you again.”
“What’s this about Simpson cheating?” asked Val.
“I’ve got the proof right here in my pocket sheriff,” Bret replied. Turning to Johnny, and Scott who had manipulated Rico and Kevin into helping him join the group since he was still somewhat dizzy, he explained. “You see, Sheriff, it’s the old bait and switch. They start you off with a good ball – one that’s legal and proper and then they switch to one nobody can hit anywhere. It’s all right here in this newspaper article.”
Scott took the article that Bret offered and somehow, despite his dizziness and slight sense of nausea, managed to read it. Then he gave it to Johnny and Val to read.
“What does it say?” Kevin asked impatiently.
“It says that Mr. Simpson here organized a team down around Eagle Buttes about five years ago. His team won the championship game because they substituted the regulation ball with a bullet wrapped in yarn and covered in leather. Anybody who hit that was lucky if it went more than two feet away from the plate.”
“Is that how you’ve been winning all those games Simpson?” Val asked. “You been usin’ these ‘bullet balls’?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Simpson blustered. “That’s cheating. We don’t have to cheat to win.”
“Uncle Dana? Have you been cheating?” Rick asked. “I noticed that every time the Mustangs or the Pilgrims or any other team was getting ahead that the ball would mysteriously begin to sink instead of flying or rolling. But somehow those balls never make their way to me. Everybody else on the team tosses it back and forth to each other but never to me.”
“Mind your tongue boy,” Simpson said angrily.
“Where’s the ball Simpson?” Johnny asked.
“The one you been cheatin’ with.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The Coyotes back up pitcher, Baldwin, and catcher, Johnson, started to back away from the crowd that had gathered. Val saw them out of the corner of his eye and ordered them back.
“So, which one of you has the funny ball?” Val asked.
“We don’t have any idea what you’re talking about,” declared Johnson.
“Sure you don’t,” Val said. “Let’s see the ball you’re holdin’.”
“Sure sheriff,” Johnson said confidently. He didn’t have the illegal ball.
Val took the ball and both he and Johnny looked it over. It was a regulation ball that they were sure of. Next Val turned his attention to Baldwin.
“You next. Let’s see the ball you’ve got.”
Baldwin tried to slip away but Rick Donaldson, disgusted by the whole sordid mess, stopped him. Baldwin resisted and punched the kid in the jaw which sent him reeling backward into the two Lancers and Val. This set Lady off who tore after the fleeing ballplayer and launched herself at him from three feet away and knocked him to the ground. His efforts to escape from the angry collie were wasted as Lady attached herself to his right wrist.
After ascertaining that his brother was all right Johnny ran after the struggling duo and called Lady off. Hauling Baldwin to his feet he marched him back to where Val was waiting. The sheriff, cum umpire, was letting Johnny handle the one while he focused his attention on Curtis Johnson and the rest of the Coyotes. Most of them were somewhat defiant about their part in the chicanery.
“Well? Someone care to explain to me what’s going on here?” Val asked.
The babble of voices in denial made Val wish he had his pistol on him so he could fire one shot in the air to get their attention. He had to settle for yelling at the top of his lungs until they finally got around to paying attention.
“You, Baldwin,” he said. “Tell me how it is that a regulation ball can be switched in the middle of a man’s at bat.”
Andrew Baldwin, a man in his early thirties, was arrogant and very much disliked by all who knew him including his teammates. He refused to say anything. It was Simpson’s nephew who shed some light on the matter.
“I think I know how, Sheriff Crawford,” the younger man said. “I noticed that Curry and Johnson were doing a lot of signaling back and forth – shaking their heads, waving their hands, some eyebrow raising and such. Every time one of those sinking balls makes an appearance they’d throw the ball to Lombard or Quiner or Beech. Sometimes even to my uncle but never to me. Then when you asked to see it they would show you the regulation ball. I think those other balls are flattened and hidden in their uniform shirt and substituted whenever the opposition seems to be doing well.”
“Let’s have it,” Val said to Johnson.
“I don’t know what the boy is talking about,” the Coyotes’ catcher said.
“Really Sheriff Crawford,” Simpson blustered. “The boy doesn’t know what he’s saying.”
“You callin’ your own kin a liar?” Val asked.
“Of course not,” was the reply. “I merely mean to say that he’s mistaken.”
“Well, make no mistake about this Mr. Simpson,” the sheriff/umpire said, “I’m going to get to the bottom of this here and now. So iffen ya know anything about this here ‘bullet ball’ you’d better speak up now.”
Just then the shortstop, Tony Hobson tried to bolt from the scene. He didn’t get far however, for Rico Portillo had been watching him get more nervous with each passing minute and tackled him before he got more than fifty yards away. When he had him under control Rico took Hobson by the arm and, with an iron grip, escorted him back to where the others stood. Second baseman Dave McCarthy was holding his wrist where Lady had clamped on it with her teeth when he tried to sucker punch Johnny who was holding onto the back up center fielder, Chris Cogley. Henry Quiner was sitting on the ground looking dizzy after Kevin Millar punched him in the mouth. Willie Mays had a grip on George Lombard that had the Coyotes’ first baseman wincing. Murdoch Lancer and Jim Talbot had braced Joe Nelson and Brad Stevens and they weren’t going anywhere. Bret Maverick had landed his own punch on the jaw of Chris Baker, the back up catcher.
Val searched Hobson and found a ball much as Bret had described hidden in the man’s jersey just as Rick had suspected. Furthermore, he found two more when he searched McCarthy and Johnson who were the last two to throw the ball to each other before the confrontation had started.
Johnny walked over to his brother and showed him one of the balls. Scott took it in his hands and, with a little help from his brother’s boot knife, cut the stitches that were holding the somewhat flattened ball together. Off came the leather cover and out came the ball of yarn that was mysteriously heavy. Finding the end of the yarn Scott started unwrapping it while Johnny wrapped it around his hand. A minute later the bullet hidden in the center of the ball dropped into Scott’s right hand.
A near riot erupted when the Falcons and other players, against whom the Coyotes had employed this underhanded method of winning the games, were made aware of the discovery.
“Hold it! HOLD IT!” Val bellowed at the top of his lungs. “Ain’t nobody gonna do nothin’ to these mangy critters lessen I say so.” Turning to Simpson he said, “The Coyotes will forfeit this game and every other game they’ve played! As of right now I am declaring the Lancer Mustangs the champions. They’re the only team left that hasn’t been defeated by your scheme and they have the best record. The Falcons will place second, the Pilgrims third and the Shamrocks fourth.”
“No. Wait,” Scott’s voice broke in. “Don’t do that.”
“I think what Scott means, Val,” Murdoch said, “is that the Mustangs would like a chance to win honestly – not by default.”
“Is that what you want brother?” Johnny asked. “You want us to take them on in an honest game?”
“Yes!” Scott said emphatically. “There’s no triumph and no pleasure in winning just because the other team was cheating. Take them on and beat them legitimately – with no shenanigans. You can do it! We got this far in spite of their cheating. Let’s go the rest of the way and do it ourselves.”
“If that’s what he wants Johnny,” Val said. “We got all them bullet balls now and I got a box full o’ them regulation type balls. You wanna start over again or from where we left off?”
Looking at Scott for confirmation, Johnny said, “We’ll start from where we left off. We ain’t afraid to. Seems to me we got two men on with nobody out ‘cause I know you ain’t countin’ that at bat by Hank. So that means that he’s up and Jamie’s next and I follow him.
“If that’s the way you want it,” Val agreed. “Coyotes take the field. Mark and Paul take your bases and Hank you’re up. Your at bat starts here and now. Those other pitches don’t count. By the way, Rick, if you want to drop out and let someone take over for you that’s okay by me and by the Lancers too I’m sure.”
“Thanks Sheriff Crawford,” Rick said. “But Uncle Dana doesn’t have a back up left fielder and I enjoy the game. I’d like to finish it.”
“If that’s the way you want it,” Val told him. “At least I know I don’t have to worry about any dirty tricks from ya.”
“No, sir, you don’t.”
“Then let’s play ball.”
The mostly sullen Coyotes took the field again while Mark and Paul went back to the bases they were on when Hank had come up to bat. The game got under way again once all the spectators were seated again. Scott looked too pale for his father’s taste and Murdoch could tell that he was very dizzy and probably nauseous but he also knew that it would be pointless to argue with him. Scott was determined to see this game through to the end, one way or the other.
Rico and Kevin, with Willie hovering close by, helped him over to a shady spot from which he could watch the rest of the game. It was close enough to see and coach but far enough away that he should be out of danger. Lady was content to stay with him under that tree where she wouldn’t be yelled at or trampled. She lay next to him with her muzzle resting lightly on his right leg just above the knee. Her eyes flicked back and forth as she watched her beloved Johnny get involved in the game. Not even Maura and Teresa’s coaxing with a special treat for their canine heroine could get her to move from that spot.
Bret Maverick, dressed in trail clothes as opposed to his usual suit, made himself comfortable next to Scott. Briefly the two men exchanged greetings with each other and Bret exchanged introductions with Kevin, Rico and Willie as well as Murdoch and Jim Talbot who were under that same tree as well. The introductions finished they all turned their eyes back to the game.
Hank squared off against Baldwin. The pitch was low and outside for a ball. The second pitch was a little too high and Val proclaimed it to be a ball as well. The next pitch was right where Hank wanted it and he hit a double to right center field. Mark scored from second and Paul moved to third as Hank came to a stop at second base. The score was now fourteen to twelve in favor of the Coyotes.
Jamie Nixon was up next. After five pitches he, too, hit a single, which brought Paul home. The Mustangs’ supporters were thrilled. It looked like their team was pulling itself together and making a comeback. Rafael was the next batter. Unfortunately he hit one straight at Rick who snagged it effortlessly as it came toward him. One out and two to go. Pete managed a single when he batted after Rafael. This moved Hank over to third base, which is where he stayed for the remainder of the inning as Dave and Noah both struck out.
In the ninth inning the Coyotes were stopped in their tracks. Not one of the three batters that went to the plate managed to get a base hit. They popped up to the catcher, flied out to left field and hit a grounder right at Rafael who merely had to take two steps to tag the base for the out. It was the easiest inning the Mustangs had had.
In the bottom of the ninth inning Johnny hit a single. He was followed by Mark Ferguson. Mark also hit a single and Johnny moved up to second base. Paul McGovern was the next batter for the Mustangs. He, too, managed a single and now the bases were loaded for Hank. Another single and another run scored tying the score at fourteen. The Mustangs’ supporters went wild. Their team had battled their way back from a four run deficit to tie it at fourteen in the bottom of the ninth inning. They were doomed to disappointment if they thought their team was on the verge of victory though, for Jamie, Rafael and Pete went down in order.
Once again the Coyotes took up their bats and once again, in the top of the tenth inning they, and their fans, were doomed to disappointment as they sent five men to the plate but not one of them scored. They took to the field again hoping to keep the Mustangs from scoring.
They were successful as Dave, Noah and Johnny managed to get singles but Mark, Paul and Hank all struck out. The Mustangs were disappointed but not defeated. Back to the field they went to take their turn at keeping the competition from breaking the tie and winning the game.
The top of the Coyotes’ batting order came up in the bottom of the eleventh inning. Dave McCarthy managed to belt out a single that slipped past Rafael at first base. The young Mexican retrieved it quickly, though, and threw it to Johnny who had ranged over to his left in case they had a chance to throw McCarthy out attempting to move over to second. Rafael’s throw was a little off the mark but Johnny managed to hang onto it and prevent the base runner from advancing.
Curtis Johnson, the catcher, was next. After five pitches, and a full count, he struck out swinging. That brought Tony Hobson to the plate. While Tony himself managed to make contact and reach first base, McCarthy was a little too slow and Johnny threw him out at second base on what would become known as a fielder’s choice. There were now two outs in the inning and Dana Simpson was coming to bat.
Simpson swaggered to the plate, confident that his team would break the tie and that he would be the one to allow them to ultimately triumph over those upstart Mustangs. What he ended up doing was hitting an easy pop up to Johnny at shortstop and ending his team’s chances for this inning.
By now it was getting somewhat dark but nobody wanted to see the game end abruptly and in a tie. Some enterprising young men, Rico and Kevin among them, ran to the General store and bought some lanterns, rope and kerosene. In less than fifteen minutes they had filled and lit the lanterns, strung the rope from tree to tree and placed some on wagon seats and such so that they would illuminate the playing field. The spectators all found places to sit behind the lights so that they could see the game and the players could see the field. Teams were unhitched and moved away so that they would not spook and upset the lanterns that were on the wagons. Rico, along with a couple of friends, went to the livery stable at the same time and got nose bags full of oats and buckets of cool water to keep the horses happy while they waited.
Play resumed in the bottom of the eleventh inning. Jamie Nixon was the first member of the Mustangs to bat. The Mustangs’ fans were thrilled when he managed to beat out the throw to first base. Now it was Rafael’s turn. He made up for his last at bat, where he had hit a grounder to second, by dropping one in between the second baseman and the shortstop, who was playing too far a field, and moving Jamie up to second base. With two men on, Pete Wilkins came up to bat next. Unfortunately Pete struck out swinging. Dave Manning who hit another single, in turn, followed him, and the bases were loaded. However, as before, they were unable to capitalize on the situation as Noah struck out and Johnny was a little too eager and hit a pop up that Curtis Johnson, catcher for the Coyotes, caught with a sneering look for the younger Lancer.
Now the Coyotes came up again. Tension was running high on the teams as well as among the spectators. Murdoch was gripping a stick he’d picked up with white knuckles. Jim Talbot was practically grinding his teeth he was so nervous. Tim O’Connor was standing with the rest of the Pilgrims as well as some of the Shamrocks and Falcons. His hat was in his hand and he kept turning it around and around. Bret Maverick was sitting next to Scott watching the game with interest. As for Captain Scott, he had a blinding headache and was feeling somewhat sick to his stomach but he wasn’t about to give in to either. The town championship was at stake and his team could win this – they had to win! They couldn’t let a team like the Coyotes win the title – not after they had reached this point in the season by cheating. Scott was counting on his little brother and their friends to win this game and show everybody who the better team was.
The Coyotes managed to get three men on base but none of them scored. The first two reached base while the third one struck out. Their fourth batter also reached first base but the fifth one hit an easy pop up that was snagged by Noah behind home plate. The fifth batter hit a grounder straight to Hank at third base who threw to Rafael for the out.
In the bottom of the twelfth inning Mark Ferguson was the first Mustang to bat. He hit a hard shot to left field and managed to reach first base safely before the ball was thrown back into the infield. Paul McGovern followed Mark, unfortunately though, he struck out looking. After Paul was Hank Anderson who hit a ground ball past the first baseman into right field. Mark moved up to second base while Hank went to first. Jamie Nixon was the second out when he hit one directly to the center fielder. Rafael was next and he, too, hit a single. The Mustangs had the bases loaded again when Pete Wilkins came up to bat. It was a wasted effort as Pete hit a pop up that was snagged by the first baseman. Once again they had left the bases loaded and their supporters were disappointed and frustrated.
It was the top of the thirteenth inning now and it was getting late. Nobody in the crowd showed any signs of wanting to leave. The refreshment stand had run out of food and lemonade at this point but the ladies kept busy by walking around with glasses and buckets filled with cold water.
The Mustangs’ equipment manager, one Jellifer B. Hoskins, was as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, as the Coyotes came up to bat again. He needn’t have worried as there were no runs scored and the Mustangs still had a chance to break the tie and win the title for themselves.
The bottom of the thirteenth inning found the Mustangs threaten again but not score. The first three batters got on base but the next three were easy outs. The Coyotes threatened twice but then they, too went down in order after that.
It was now the bottom of the fourteenth inning. Jamie Nixon hit a single to left center field. Rafael managed a second single to move Jamie over to second. Once again, the Mustangs supporters were doomed to disappointment as Pete, Dave and Noah went down in order.
In the top of the fifteenth inning the Coyotes sent six men to the plate. The first, fourth and fifth batters all reached first base but the second, third and fifth all struck out. Once again, it was the Mustangs’ chance to break the tie. First up was Dave Manning who hit a single to right field. Following Dave was Noah Greene. Noah hit one right at the second baseman who tagged the base and threw to first. In one nice, neat double play the Mustangs had two outs and Johnny was up.
The tension was so thick it could have been cut with a knife when Johnny walked up to the plate. The air seemed to crackle with electricity as it would before a thunderstorm. All talk ceased – even from the fretful Lancer handyman. They’d gone fourteen and a half innings and the game was tied at eleven. When would it end? How would it end?
The only one who was not nervous was Johnny himself. The young former gunfighter had summoned up Madrid as he faced Andrew Baldwin again knowing full well that he could help his team win this game. Icy blue eyes stared out across the field at the pitcher. All he could see and hear was the man on the mound and the umpire behind him.
“Ball one!” Val said as the first pitch came across the plate.
Curtis Johnson threw the ball back to Baldwin with a grimace and settled back to wait for the next pitch. He was happier when that one came as Val called it a strike. Johnny made no move – showed no indication that he had heard Val. He concentrated on the task at hand waiting for Baldwin to make a mistake and put one right where he wanted it.
Again there was no indication that Johnny had heard Val. The spectators were getting just a little anxious but not rowdy at this point. After all there had only been three pitches thrown. They’d wait and see what happened with the next one. They hadn’t long to wait.
Johnson and Baldwin grinned in anticipation of what they thought would be an easy out. They should have paid more attention to their jobs. Baldwin became overeager to get the out and threw ball three into the dirt in front of home plate. Now the tension in the crowd was getting more audible. Three balls and two strikes meant that if the next pitch was good and Johnny didn’t swing on it he would be out and the game would go to a sixteenth inning. There wasn’t a person in the crowd, including Scott Lancer, who felt that they could take it if that happened.
Baldwin suddenly became anxious. Johnny’s lack of reaction unnerved him. He had expected that the younger Lancer, inexperienced as he was at the game, would be nervous. He should have been sweating or showing some other sign of nerves. Instead Johnny was staring straight at him as if daring him to make a mistake. The Coyotes’ pitcher wound up and sent the ball to home plate. It was right where Johnny wanted it and, upon contact, went sailing out to center field.
Dropping the bat Johnny bolted for first base reaching safely. Taking a quick glance toward center field he could see that Dana Simpson was having difficulty locating the ball in the semi darkness of the outfield. The lanterns that the younger set had strung didn’t shed enough light to illuminate the outfield as well as the crowd and the infield.
As he reached second base he could see that Rick Donaldson and Henry Quiner had joined the search but that they, at the moment were having no more success than Simpson had. As Johnny rounded second and headed for third he could see that the other team had finally located the ball. Simpson found it and threw it to Quiner. Quiner threw it to Tony Hobson the shortstop. Johnny touched third and headed for home just as fast as he could run. He saw, just as he touched third base, that Hobson had the ball but that he had fumbled the catch. That error gave Johnny a few extra seconds. To the screams of his teammates Johnny headed for home. Seeing the ball flying toward home plate his instincts kicked in. Instead of running the last five feet he went into a headfirst dive and just managed to get his right hand on the plate before Johnson could apply the tag.
“Safe!” Val exclaimed to the delight of the Mustangs and their supporters.
“Safe?” Johnson asked. “How can he be safe? I tagged him out at the plate!”
“You tagged him all right,” Val said, “after he had already touched. Johnny is safe and the Mustangs win the game fifteen to fourteen. They’re the champions of the Morro Coyo/Green River/Spanish Wells summer baseball league.” Turning to his buddy who had picked himself up off the ground and was dusting his pants and salmon colored shirt off, he said, “Congratulations Johnny. That was some play!”
Johnny grinned as he continued brushing himself off. Dana Simpson came over to argue the matter with Val. The rancher was red faced and breathing heavily. To those who were close enough to notice there was also somewhat of a frightened look in his eyes.
“Now Sheriff Crawford are you absolutely sure that Lancer’s hand touched the plate before he was tagged? Aren’t you just the teeniest bit doubtful about that?”
“Why so insistent Mr. Simpson?” Bret Maverick asked. “Worried about your gambling debts?”
“I paid you off,” Simpson snarled, “so butt out!”
“Oh, I’m not talking about your debt to me, Mr. Simpson,” Bret said. “I’m talking about the money you owe down in Eagle Buttes and half a dozen other towns within a twenty mile radius.” Turning to the crowd that had gathered, that included Murdoch and Scott as well as Jim Talbot and many of the Falcons, Shamrocks and Pilgrims, he added, “You see I keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut when I’m playing poker. You learn a lot about the men you’re playing with that way. And you learn about their towns and their businesses. It seems that back a few years ago they formed a baseball league as well. Strictly small time and just for fun except that there was this one fella, you Mr. Simpson, who took it entirely too seriously. You were determined that your team was going to be the town champion.”
“You mean this ain’t the first league he’s been involved in?” Johnny asked.
“Oh, no indeed, Johnny my boy,” Brett told him. “Mr. Simpson started betting heavily on his team to win. When they couldn’t win by fair means he tried bribery. When bribery didn’t work he had some of his teammates – hired hands actually – make a few vague threats. Vague enough that charges couldn’t be pressed. The threats turned into beatings. Why I hear one man was beaten so bad he was months recovering and still couldn’t work a full day a year later.”
“Lies! All lies!” Simpson exclaimed. “Nobody ever proved that I had anything to do with what happened!”
“That’s not what the newspaper says.” Bret reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a newspaper clipping and a letter both of which he handed to Val who shared them with Gabe.
“It says here that you were heavily in debt to a man named Rossbach. When he threatened to go to the law he was mysteriously waylaid on his way to the sheriff’s office. Apparently he’s the man who was beaten so badly he couldn’t work his place for a year.”
“What do you have to say to that, Mr. Simpson?” Gabe asked.
“Nonsense. I had nothing to do with it.”
“Like we believe that?” Johnny asked. “I’ll just bet you’re the one behind all the beatings and the players being scared off all summer. And I’m also willing to bet that you’re the one who had Scott kidnapped.”
While this exchange was going on a tall, thin, sandy haired stranger came along asking for Murdoch Lancer. In his hand was the evidence that would point to him as the third member of the trio that had been hired to kidnap and hold Scott until the championship game was over.
“Mr. Lancer? I was told to deliver this to you before the game got started.”
Murdoch took the envelope that was being held out to him and opened it. Scanning the contents quickly he showed it to Jim Talbot and then called Val over.
“Val? Come here for a moment would you?”
“What is it, Mr. Lancer?” the Green River Sheriff asked.
“This young man just delivered a note I think you should see.” Murdoch handed the note to Val. Gabe, a very interested party due to his friendship with the Lancers, read it over Val’s shoulder.
“Where’d you get this?” Val demanded to know.
“I was paid to deliver it,” the stranger said.
“By who?” Val asked.
“I can’t tell you that,” the man said. “It’s confidential.”
“Not any more it ain’t,” Val said. “Scott Lancer is no one’s prisoner any more. That’s him standing right there.” Val pointed at Scott who, supported by Jim Talbot now, was standing next to his father.
The man who delivered the note blanched and stuttered, “Tha…that’s no…not possible!”
“Why ain’t it?” Val asked.
Without thinking, or perhaps thinking to save his own skin, the stranger said, “Because he’s supposed to be locked up in the cellar of a warehouse that Mr. Simpson told us to use. He said he owned it but nobody has used it in years. No one would look for him there. He said that the Mustangs would be glad to throw the game if Lancer’s life were in danger and, even if they weren’t, that he had another trick up his sleeve – something about doctored balls.”
Hearing this the dam burst. Simpson, Baldwin and the rest of the Coyotes made a run for it. A free-for-all ensued as Johnny, Kevin, Rico, Willie and all the other players who had trained and competed hard all summer, only to be intimidated or injured went after them. They were joined by a good many of the spectators who were supporters of the Pilgrims, Falcons and Shamrocks besides those who were supporters of, or close friends with, the Lancer Mustangs.
In the melee that ensued Johnny could be seen swapping blows with Andrew Baldwin. Kevin and Rico were engaged in a brawl with Hobson and Johnson while Willie had taken Henry Quiner by the shirt collar and the belt and thrown him to one side – seemingly effortlessly – where he lay still and cowed. Gabe had his hands full with Dave McCarthy while Val was handling Mike Beech. The back up players for the Coyotes - Baker, Nelson, Stevens and Cogley were all in good hands. Jim Talbot and a couple of the other men had them. Even Bret Maverick had a hand in it. He used his own fists to take the fight out of the Coyotes’ first baseman George Lombard.
As for Scott Lancer, well, he was kept out of it by a protective handyman. Not that he was in any condition for a fight. He did enjoy watching the Coyotes get the stuffing beaten out of them for the five minutes or so it took to get everything under control again.
When it was all over Dana Simpson, who had been corralled by Murdoch, along with most of his teammates and the last of the three drifters, were marched off to jail to await charges stemming from the cheating in the games to gambling and kidnapping to assault and battery.
After the dust settled everyone gathered around to congratulate the Mustangs. Scott was the recipient of many enthusiastic back slaps and all the noise and bustle proved to be too much for him. His battered head started spinning and everything went dark as he passed out. He’d held himself together through the game, not even becoming sick to his stomach until about an hour ago, and had retained his hold on consciousness but now his body rebelled against his rigid control.
Willie Mays was standing right next to him when it happened. Without a second’s hesitation Willie caught Scott up in his arms as though Scott were a small child and carried him, unbidden, over to the Lancer’s wagon where the injured blond was made as comfortable as they could make him under the circumstances. For this he received Murdoch’s heartfelt thank you, and a grin and a strong handshake from Johnny. Sam Jenkins gave the blond a quick check up and then turned to Murdoch.
“It’s just the concussion, Murdoch,” he said. “He forced himself to stay awake and alert for the game and his body has decided, now that the excitement is over, that’s it’s time he got some rest. Take him home and put him to bed. I’ll come by tomorrow afternoon to check on him.”
Home they went with Teresa riding in the wagon with her “brother” and Johnny riding Barranca close behind. Murdoch, too, rode his horse close to the wagon. Scott roused once or twice on the way home but his pale face told them that he was not up for a lot of conversation. Johnny’s soft drawl, speaking in English and Spanish – a lot of it nonsense and teasing – lulled him back to sleep. He didn’t even notice when they arrived home and his brother carried him up to bed. Murdoch was right behind them and saw to it that Scott was safely tucked in for the night.
The following day found Scott spending the day in bed, resting frequently, with cool lavender compresses prepared by Maria and Teresa on his forehead. They also gave him willow bark tea which he detested but it was better than the “’coction” Jelly had fixed for him. The old handyman, a self proclaimed expert on herbal medicine – in some cases rightly so – had fixed him up a mixture of alfalfa leaves (horse fodder in Scott’s opinion) and water with a bit of cinnamon and alcohol.
It was either valiantly, or at the teasing of his younger brother, that Scott managed to down any of the vile concoction. It pleased Jelly to no end to see his elixir taken by the injured Lancer son. He was firmly convinced that it would help his ailing stomach, which was really all better after Scott lost the contents of his stomach - meager as they were – at the game.
A week later Scott’s head was back to normal and the shoulder that had been bruised in the collision with Curry was healed as well. That Saturday, the third one in October dawned bright and clear and just a little cool. The Mustangs were primed and ready, so they thought, for the charity game against the mysterious Brownies.
At two o’clock that afternoon the Lancers, Jelly, Jim Talbot and many of their friends and neighbors gathered at the field in Green River. Val Crawford had been asked to act as umpire for this game just as he had the others.
“So where’s our competition?” Scott asked Val as the Mustangs prepared to take the field.
“Right here, Scott,” said Maura Talbot’s voice from behind him.
Scott turned toward his surrogate mother and was stunned to see her wearing a chocolate brown ankle length divided riding skirt, a brown uniform shirt in the same style as the Mustangs and small sized baseball shoes also similar to the Mustangs.
“Mrs. Talbot? What are you doing dressed like that?” Scott was completely dumbfounded to see his surrogate mother dressed like that.
“I’m the Captain of the Brownies, dear,” she told him as she smiled sweetly.
“She’s the Captain of the Brownies, brother,” Johnny said laughing at the ludicrous expression on his brother’s face and practically falling over as he did. At the sight of Teresa, Martha Pittman, Aggie Conway and several of the other ladies of the area, wearing the same attire, arriving behind Maura he added, “Meet the rest of the team. I’m their manager and coach.”
“You’re joking right?” Scott asked. “This is just some dumb practical joke that you and Kevin dreamed up with a little help from Rico.”
“No. We ain’t kidding brother,” Johnny said. “Miz Talbot, Teresa and the other ladies are the Brownies who sent you that invitation. I’ve been workin’ with them for weeks so they could challenge you.”
“Come on Scott,” Pete Wilkins said, “we’re not gonna play against a bunch of women are we?”
“What’s the matter Peter John?” Maura asked. “Afraid we’ll beat you?”
“No, ma’am,” Pete said. “I’m afraid we’ll hurt you. Baseball can get pretty rough you know.”
“Well we’re not worried about that,” the Lancers’ surrogate mother said. “Come along Johnny, we need to go over our strategy for this game with the rest of the team.”
“Yes, ma’am. You realize, of course, brother, that you don’t have a back up short stop unless you ask Rico,” Johnny said with a cheeky grin at his brother and the Mustangs as he walked away.
“You just wait, John Luis Lancer,” his brother said making rare use of Johnny’s full name. “I’ll pay you back for this brother!”
“Sure, brother,” said Johnny, who was not in the least bit worried.
The Mustangs lost the coin toss and took the field first. The first batter for the Brownies was Murdoch’s old friend Agatha Conway. Actually her name was Addison now but the boys still thought of her as Conway even though they just called her Aggie.
Aggie swung for all she was worth at the fourth pitch that came her way and managed a single. She gave Scott one of the innocent smiles she had always reserved for his father when she was playing some trick on him, as she stood safely at first base. Martha Pittman, who was Tim’s mother, followed Aggie. She too, managed a single and Aggie moved over to second base.
Bret Maverick was in the crowd having heard about the game in the saloon. Many wagers were being made on the outcome. Most of the men didn’t think the ladies stood a chance. A few, however, knowing Maura Talbot, weren’t so sure. Bret had a friendly wager of his own that the ladies would win. A mere fifty dollars – and he planned on donating half of any winnings to the Bear Creek Relief Fund.
Teresa O’Brien, Murdoch’s ward, was next. Teresa hit a ground ball that went right past Rafael and into center field. The bases were now loaded and Maura Talbot came to the plate.
Scott held a hurried conference with his pitcher and his catcher. This was embarrassing to the Mustangs. Three women, two of them over the age of forty, were on base. If Maura also achieved a base hit the Brownies would be ahead four to nothing – in the first inning no less. That just couldn’t happen!
“Ball one,” Val pronounced as the first pitch came toward the new batter.
“Come on Maura, you can do it,” her husband cheered her on laughing all the while.
“Ball two,” Val called as the second pitch came.
Maura tightened her grip on the bat and watched Jamie Nixon intently to see what he would throw next. When the ball came toward her she swung hard making solid contact. The ball sailed out into the outfield over the heads of Rafael Mendoza at short and Dave Manning in center field. It dropped into the weeds five feet behind them. Aggie scored first followed by Martha Pittman. Teresa was next and, by the time the Mustangs outfielders found the ball and threw it back to the infield, Maura had also scored. The score was four to nothing in favor of the Brownies.
Their manager, one ex-gunfighter by the name of Johnny Madrid Lancer, was bent over double he was laughing so hard at the Mustangs – especially his dumbfounded brother.
“What’s the matter, brother?” he asked.
Jim Talbot came over to congratulate his wife. Turning to Scott he said, “I told you two my wife was good at anything she does. That includes learning how to play baseball.”
“How long have you been practicing?” Scott, the now humbled Captain of the Mustangs asked.
“We’ve been practicing since your league began. We sent the invitation when we felt we were ready to take you on,” was the reply he received from Maura. “Johnny borrowed a copy of the rule book and he’s been coaching us all summer.”
“So that’s why you were late those nights? Because you were practicing?” Scott was finally beginning to understand that he’d been had.
“Yes, dear,” Maura said. “And it was worth it to see your faces when we showed up in uniforms.”
The Brownies went on to defeat the Mustangs that night by a score of ten to six. The game drew a large crowd and a sum of two hundred dollars plus was garnered for the relief fund for the people of Bear Creek.
Bret Maverick went his way with a story to tell his brother, their friends, and anyone else who would listen. A story about the day that an all male baseball team was defeated by an all female baseball team – and didn’t mind a bit.
By David Buttolph and Paul Francis Webster
Who is the tall dark stranger there?
Maverick is the name.
Riding the trail to who knows where
Luck is his companion
Gambling is his game.
Smooth as the handle on a gun
Maverick is the name,
Wild as the wind in Oregon
Blowing up a canyon
Easier to tame.
Riverboat ring your bell
Fare thee well Annabel
Luck is the lady that he loves the best
Natchez to New Orleans
Living on jacks and queens
Maverick is a legend of the west
Riverboat ring your bell
Fare thee well Annabell
Luck is the lady that he loves the best
Natchez to New Orleans
Living on Jacks and queens
Maverick is a legend of the west
Maverick is a legend of the west
****Yeah, I know this is Lancer but with Bret having a cameo appearance I couldn’t resist adding the lyrics to the Maverick Theme.
****The following websites were used as reference for this story: