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A Dangerous Plunge






"I'm going to tie you up in knots, old man," said Jim Barclay, with a
smile, as he picked up the ball and stepped into the box in batting
practice at the training camp.

"I've heard that kind of talk before," retorted Joe Matson, known all
over the country as "Baseball Joe," the king pitcher of the Giants.
"But untying knots is the best thing I do. Give me the best you have in
the shop."

Jim wound up and put one over that just cut the corner of the plate.
Joe made a mighty swing at it, but it was just beyond his reach.

"Nearly broke your back reaching for that one, eh?" laughed Jim, as the
ball was thrown back to him.

"I was just kidding you that time," grinned Joe. "I'm going to kill the
next one."

Again the ball whizzed to the plate. It was a fast, straight ball with
a slight hop to it. Joe caught it near the end of his bat and "leaned
on it" heavily. The ball soared out between right and center, and
the outfielders covering that position gave one look at it and then
turned and ran with the ball. But it kept on and on until it cleared
the fence, and the discomfited fielders threw up their hands and came
slowly back to their positions.

Jim looked sheepish, and Joe, who was his chum and best friend, laughed
outright as he relinquished the bat to the next man in line.

"A sweet home run, Jim," he remarked.

"I should say so!" snorted Jim. "That hit was good for two home runs.
The ball was ticketed for kingdom come."

"Who was it said that pitchers couldn't hit?" laughed Mylert, the burly
catcher of the Giant team, as he took Joe's place.

"I'll tell the world that some of them can!" exclaimed Jim, as he
prepared to try his luck again. "Gee, Joe, if that had happened to me
in a regular game, it would have broken my heart."

Two keen-eyed men in uniform had been standing near the side lines,
watching intently every move of the players, as they tried out their
batting eyes and arms. One was stocky and of medium height, with
hair that had begun to grey at the temples. The other was stout and
ruddy, with a twinkle in his eyes that bespoke good nature. Both were
veterans of many hard-fought baseball campaigns, and both had played
on the Baltimore Orioles when that great organization of stars was the
sensation of the baseball world.

"Did you see that hit, Robbie?" asked McRae, the manager of the Giants,
of his stout companion.

"Not all of it," replied Robson, the coach of the team. "But I followed
it as far as the fence. That was a whale of a wallop. I'll bet the
ball's going yet," and the man chuckled gleefully.

"Of course, this was only in practice," mused McRae. "Perhaps Barclay
wasn't trying over hard."

"Don't kid yourself, Mac," replied Robson. "Barclay wasn't just lobbing
them up. That ball came over like a bullet. It had a hop on it too, but
Joe gauged it just right. I tell you that boy is a wonder. If he wasn't
a wizard in the box, he'd be a terror at the bat."

"I wish there were two of him, Robbie," said the manager, smiling. "One
to cover the mound and the other to use as a pinch hitter or play him
in the outfield. That would make a combination hard to beat."

"It was the best day's work you ever did when you got that lad from St.
Louis," remarked Robson. "I'll bet the Cardinal's manager feels like
throwing a fit every time he thinks what a fool he was to let him go."

"Well," said McRae, "if everybody's foresight in baseball was as good
as his hindsight, there'd be no trading done. I don't mind saying that
I throw out my chest a little for having seen what was in the kid. He's
certainly been the making of the team."

"One thing is certain; and that is that you wouldn't have the World's
Championship tucked away if it hadn't been for his great work in the
Series," rejoined Robson. "He just had those Chicago birds eating out
of his hand."

"Right you are," admitted McRae. "Here's hoping he'll repeat this
season."

"Don't worry a bit about that," was Robson's confident answer. "You can
see for yourself that he's been going great guns in practice. And even
at that he hasn't been letting himself out. He's taking good care of
that old soup-bone of his."

"He was never better in his life," declared McRae. "I'll admit that I
was a little worried for fear that the trip around the world had taken
something out of him. You know what a strain he was under in that
All-Star League affair, Robbie. But it hasn't seemed to affect him at
all."

"He'll need all he's got this year," said Robbie thoughtfully. "We'll
have to depend more on the pitching than we did last year, because
we're not so strong on the batting end. When Burkett quit, it took
away a good deal of our hitting strength, and you've seen that Mylert
is slipping. On the form he's shown in practice this spring, he won't
be good for more than a two hundred and fifty per cent average, and
that's about sixty points below what he showed last year."

"I know it," agreed the manager, a worried look coming into his face.
"And what makes it worse is that Larry, too, is slow in rounding
into form. Instead of lining them out, he's sending them up in the
air. He'll be just pie for the fielders if he keeps it up. I can't
understand the thing at all."

"Oh, well," said Robbie, whose jolly disposition never let him stay
long under a cloud, "here's hoping that they'll come to the scratch
when the season opens. Some of the rookies look pretty good to me, and
if the old-timers fall down we may be able to fill their places all
right. Come along, Mac; let's finish working out that schedule for
the trip north. We'll have to get a hustle on to be in shape to start
to-morrow."

McRae gave the signal to his men that practice time was over, and the
young athletes, nothing loth to drop their work and get down to the
hotel for dinner, began to gather up their bats preparatory to jumping
into the bus which was waiting outside the grounds. But before they got
to it, McRae and Robson had climbed in and given the signal to the
driver to start.

"No, you don't!" he called out with a grin, as the bus started away.
"You fellows leg it down to the hotel. It's only two miles, and you
need the exercise. Get a move on, or Robbie and I will clear the table
before you get there."

There were grunts and groans from the players, for the sun was warm and
the practice had been strenuous. But there was no help for it, and they
dropped into a dog trot that was quickened by the thought of the dinner
that was waiting for them at the end of the journey.

They reached the hotel in good time, took a shower bath, changed into
their regular clothes, and were soon at the table with an appetite that
swept the board and made the colored waiters roll their eyes in wonder,
not unmixed with awe.

After the meal was finished, Joe and Jim were on their way to the
room they shared together when they passed McRae and Robbie, who were
sitting in the lobby enjoying their after-dinner cigars.

McRae beckoned to them, and they went over to where the pair was
sitting.

"Well, boys," said the manager, as he motioned to a couple of chairs
into which they dropped, "our spring practice is over and I don't mind
saying that I'm feeling good over the way you fellows ate up your
work. Both of you look as fit as fiddles."

"That's sure the way we feel," answered Joe, and Jim murmured
acquiescence.

"In fact you look so good," went on McRae, knocking the ashes from
his cigar and settling back comfortably in his chair, "that I'm going
to call training finished, as far as you two are concerned. Just now
you're right at the top of your form, and I don't want to take any
chances on your going stale. So I'm going to let you rest up for
the next week or ten days. All you have to do is to take good care
of yourselves--and I know you boys well enough to be sure you'll do
that--and turn up in shape when the season opens week after next."

Joe and Jim looked at each other, and the same thought was in the mind
of each. This seemed too good to be true!

"We start north to-morrow," went on McRae, "in two lots, playing minor
league teams on the way to keep in practice. The regulars will go along
with me, while Robbie will take the second string men and the rookies.
We'll jog along in easy fashion and hope to reach the Polo Grounds in
the pink of condition."

By this time Joe had found his voice. He smiled broadly.

"That's mighty good of you, Mac," he said. "I suppose you want us then
to go right through to New York."

"That's the idea," replied the manager. "Robbie will see to your
transportation this afternoon."

But just here, Robson, who had been watching the boys' faces, broke
into a laugh.

"For the love of Mike, wake up Mac!" he adjured his friend. "Don't you
know that Joe lives only a couple of hundred miles from here right over
the border? And don't you remember those two pretty girls that were
with us on the World Tour? And didn't we hear Joe telling Jim a few
days ago that his sweetheart was visiting his folks? And here you are
sending the lads straight through to New York with never a stop on the
way. Mac, old man, I'm ashamed of you."

McRae grinned as he looked at the faces of the young men--faces that
had grown suddenly red.

"Robbie hit the nail on the head, did he?" he said, with a chuckle.
"Well, I'm Irishman enough to have a soft spot in my heart for the lads
and their colleens. Fix it up, boys, to suit yourselves. As long as you
report on time, that's all I ask. Get along with you now, as Robbie and
I have got to fix up our routes."

Joe and Jim were only too glad to "get along," and after thanking McRae
hurried to their room, where they indulged in a wild war dance.

"Glory, hallelujah!" shouted Joe. "A whole week or more to ourselves,
and home only two hundred miles away!"

"Your home is," replied Jim. "Mine's more than a thousand miles away."

"You old sardine!" cried Joe, throwing a book at his head. "Isn't my
home yours? Do you think I'd dare show my face there without bringing
you along? Clara would never forgive me. Neither would Mabel. Neither
would Momsey nor Dad. Get a wiggle on now, old man, and hunt up a
time-table."

Jim, with his face jubilant at the thought of soon seeing Joe's
pretty sister, hustled about for the time-table; and with heads close
together the young men were soon poring over the schedules. At last Joe
straightened up with a vexed exclamation.

"Of all the roundabout ways!" he ejaculated. "We'll have to change
three or four different times with all sorts of bad connections, and
can't reach Riverside until to-morrow afternoon."

"Wait a minute," said Jim, running his pencil along a column. "Here's
a line that will get us to Martinsville early to-morrow morning, just
before daylight. How far is Martinsville from Riverside?"

"About fifty miles more or less," replied Joe. "But crickey, Jim, that
gives me an idea! What's the matter with going to Martinsville and
hiring an auto there? I know Hank Bixby who keeps a garage there and
has autos for hire. He used to live in Riverside, and played with me
on the old school nine before his folks moved away. I'll send him a
wire telling him what time we'll get there and asking him to have a
first-class car ready for us."

"You know the road all right, do you?" asked Jim. "Remember it will be
dark when we get there."

"I know it like a book," replied Joe. "I've been over it many a time.
I could travel it in the dark. It's as level as a table until you get
to Hebron. Just beyond that there's a steep hill that will give the car
something to do. But Hank will give me a machine that can climb it,
and, besides, it will be just about daylight by the time we get there.
It's a cinch that we won't have any trouble. I'll bet a hat--what's the
matter, Jim?"

For Jim had risen and moved quickly toward the door, which had been
standing partly open. He put out his head and looked down the corridor.
Not satisfied with that, he went down the hall to the head of the
stairs. Then he slowly retraced his steps.

Joe, who had followed his chum to the door, looked at him with
open-mouthed wonder.

"What's the matter with you?" he queried. "Have you gone daffy?"

"Not exactly," replied Jim. "I thought I saw somebody I knew go past
the door."

"Likely enough," said Joe, with a touch of sarcasm. "It wouldn't be at
all surprising. The hotel is full of our fellows."

"It wasn't one of our boys," returned Jim slowly.

"Well, who was it then?" asked Joe, a little impatiently. "Come out of
your trance, old man."

"I think it was a fellow we know only too well," Jim replied. "I think
it was Braxton."

"Braxton!" exclaimed Joe with sudden interest. "The fellow that was
with us on the World Tour?"

"The same one," affirmed Jim. "The fellow you licked within an inch of
his life in the old Irish castle."

"Are you sure?" asked Joe. "It doesn't seem at all likely that we'd run
across that rascal in this little training-camp town. What on earth
would he be doing down here?"

"That's just what I want to know," replied Jim soberly. "As you say,
it's all against the chances that we should run across him here by
accident. If he's here, he's come with some purpose. And that purpose
means nothing good for you. He's exactly the sort of man that won't
forget that thrashing."

"I guess he won't," replied Joe grimly. "My knuckles ache now when I
think of it. But if he's looking for another licking, he sure can have
it."

"He isn't looking for another," Jim returned. "He's looking to get even
for the first one you gave him. You know he swore at the time that he'd
pay you up for it."

"He's welcome to try," declared Joe indifferently. "But really, Jim, I
think you're mistaken. It seems too improbable. There are plenty of men
in the world who look like Braxton."

"Of course, I wouldn't swear it was he," admitted Jim. "I only saw him
side-face, and he slipped past the door like a ghost."

"Well, we'll keep our eyes open about the hotel and around the town,"
rejoined Joe. "But now let's think of pleasanter things. Our train goes
at six, and we've got lots to do in getting our duds packed. Then, too,
I've got to wire to Hank and must get the tickets for as far as the
cars will carry us."

The afternoon proved a busy one, but by train time they had completed
their packing, said good-by to the rest of the team, who frankly envied
them their luck, and were snugly ensconced in the day coach, as the
little road had no sleeping cars, and even if they had the frequent
changes they had to make would have made a sleeper not worth while. As
it was, they slept in snatches, had luck in their connections, and
about an hour before dawn stepped off the train at the little station
of Martinsville.

Both Baseball Joe and Jim Barclay had expected to find the town asleep,
but were surprised to find a large number of the inhabitants, chiefly
the younger men, at the station. Still another group stood in the
lighted doorway of Hank Bixby's garage, which was directly across the
street.

"What's the big idea?" Jim asked Joe, as he looked in surprise at the
crowd that drew close about them.

"Blest if I know," replied Joe. "Maybe there's been a fire or
something."

But they were soon enlightened, as Hank came bustling across the
street, his face aglow with welcome and self-importance.

"Howdy, Mr. Matson!" he exclaimed, as he wrung Joe's hand.

"Mr. Matson!" laughed Joe, returning the handshake. "Where do you get
that stuff? What's the matter with Joe?"

"Well, Joe, then," beamed Hank. "You see, Joe, you've got to be such a
big fellow now, known all over the United States, that I felt a bit shy
about calling you by your first name. I got your wire and mentioned it
to a fellow or two, and by heck it was all over town in no time that
the greatest pitcher in the country was going to be here. This crowd's
been waiting here all night to say howdy to you."

The people were all crowding around him by now, waiting their turn to
shake hands, and Joe, although embarrassed, as he always was when he
found himself the center of attention, did his best to respond to the
expressions of good will and admiration that were showered upon him.
Jim also came in for his share of the crowd's interest as a promising
and rapidly rising pitcher of the baseball champions of the world.
It was with a sigh of relief that they settled themselves at last in
the speedy car which Hank had provided for them and which he proudly
assured them would "just burn up the road" between Martinsville and
Riverside.

Joe took the wheel and the car started off, amid a waving of hands and
a roar of farewell from the crowd.

"Great day for Martinsville," said Jim mischievously, as he settled
down by the side of his chum and the car purred along over the level
road. "How does it feel to be a hero, Joe?"

"Quit your kidding," replied Joe, with a grin. "If they'd wrung this
old wing of mine much more, McRae would have been minus one of his
pitchers."

"One of the penalties of greatness," chaffed Jim.

"And now for home!" exulted Joe, as he put on added speed and the car
leaped forward.

"And Clara," murmured Jim under his breath, as he thought of Joe's
charming sister.

Joe did not hear him, for his thoughts were engrossed with Mabel, the
girl who had promised to marry him and who he fondly hoped might be at
this moment dreaming of him, as without her knowledge he was speeding
toward her. She had been visiting at his father's home as the guest of
his sister Clara. Since their trip together around the world the two
girls had become almost inseparable, and Mr. and Mrs. Matson already
regarded Mabel as a second daughter.

The day for the marriage of Joe and Mabel had not yet been set, but Joe
was determined that it should take place soon, and he hoped that now he
would be able to get Mabel to set a definite date for that happy event.

Jim, too, had his dreams, and they all centered about Clara. He had
fallen desperately in love with her at their first meeting, and he had
made up his mind that on this visit he would ask the all-important
question, on the answer to which his happiness depended.

The car dashed along at rapid speed, and as they came near Hebron Joe
roused himself from his reverie. The darkness was disappearing, and in
the faint light of the spring morning they could see a steep hill a
little way ahead. At the side of the road ran a little river, of whose
murmur they had been conscious for some time, although in the darkness
they could scarcely see it.

"Here's where we'll see whether Hank was bragging overmuch about this
car," remarked Joe, as he tightened his grasp on the wheel and put his
foot on the accelerator. "I'll give her a good start and see how she
can climb."

The car gathered speed as it neared the bottom of the hill. Joe peered
forward, and then from his lips came a startled shout.

Directly in front of them, completely blocking the road, was a mass of
heavy timbers. To strike them at that speed meant maiming or death!

At one side of the road was a steep cliff. On the other side was the
river.

Joe's brain worked like lightning. There was but one chance. He swung
the wheel around, the car crashed through a fence at the side of the
road, suddenly stopped short, and Joe and Jim were sent headlong into
the river!





Next: A Surprise




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