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Ace of Diamonds
By Bruce H. Thorstad
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Bruce H. Thorstad
All rights reserved.
Courting the Mark
"THWACK!" WENT THE BAT. THE BALL SHOT STRAIGHT INTO THE hands of the second baseman, where it stuck like glue. Supporters of the Leadville Lions yelled their heads off. On Buckshot's side of the baseline, all folks did was sigh.
Not me, though. My hinder warmed an empty dynamite crate. One eye I held squinted against the lowering sun. The other eye was not a whole lot busier. If I was lazing, dozing the day away, it was because baseball was Riley's passion, Riley's and his uncle's. It sure as hell wasn't mine.
The inning was the ninth, and Riley's team—the home team—was two runs down, already the owners of a pair of outs, and could not scrape up a base runner to save their souls. The last hopes of the Buckshot Rockies were poised to drop down the ol' privy hole. But then, so what?
Sweating vinegar over the outcome of a ball game was pure foolishness in my view. Oh, showing our bewildered English investor a hometown victory might've been nice enough. Success, I reckon, is always impressive.
But I was savvy enough to keep perspective. The truth was, our mission over the last few days had been to squire Mr. Roger Prescott, Esquire, the Englishman mentioned above and a bona fide moneybags, down the main shaft and into the drifts of the Testament Mine, or at least down as low as the flooding waters would let us. Meanwhile we talked potential, we talked opening new veins of silver, we talked of all the wonders that would be possible if only we could raise thirty thousand dollars, buy pumping equipment, and pump the Testament dry of the water that kept leaking into her.
When we weren't escorting Prescott through the mine itself, we were guiding him around the environs of Buckshot, a town that had two-bit stamped all over it, and introducing him to half her citizenry.
For Prescott, you see, was an investor. He was money incarnate. He held the town's future, you might say, in the fold of his wallet. He was also immaculately and expensively dressed, high-toned in manner, and sported manicured fingernails.
Of which the wonder was that this repository of cultivation and education professed to be delighted with just about everything we showed him. Hand him an assay sample and he'd treat it like diamonds. Buy him lunch in some flyspeck eatery and he'd exclaim over home cooking.
As for undeniable eyesores, of which Buckshot had plenty, Prescott didn't seem to see them. Or if he did, they merely put him in mind of something pleasant or interesting. Like that very morning, the three of us strolling down from the Mother Lode Saloon to the ball field, when a dog so scabied it looked like it'd been scalped crossed our paths. Was Prescott disgusted? Not so's you'd notice. He merely launched into the merits of breeding Airedales. It was like maybe our scabied mutt had a pedigree and a history of fox hunting.
"Cass," Riley hissed at me behind Prescott's back. Riley's expression was scowly.
"What?" At the plate, Gabe McClintock, the Rockies' catcher, bustled to the batsman's box, spat on his hands, shifted his tobacco from one cheek to the other, then thumped the plate. That's baseball for you—strong on buildup, weak on action.
"Let me give you a couple pointers on bat handling," Riley said.
"Just come over here," Riley said, letting some irritation show. "Mr. Prescott, if you'll excuse us ...?"
"Strategy of the game, is it?" our Englishman said. "By all means."
Gabe McClintock let a fat pitch arc past him for a called strike. Riley groaned as he led me a few steps behind the ball field's inner sanctum, the half circle of chicken wire forming the backstop. On his way, he picked up a bat.
"What in the world ...?" I said. "Don't tell me you're expecting me to play?"
"I'm worried you're forgetting our guest," Riley said, and to show how strongly he felt about it, he cut the air with the bat. Whoosh!
"Not at all," I said.
"The Englishman's our best prospect and you know it," Riley said, letting out exasperation.
"You're antsy as an old maid. Prescott's in the bag. Why worry?"
"Don't be too sure."
"As for your precious ball game, he claims he's enjoying himself," I said. "Beats me as to why. You ask me, it's boring."
"He claims that on account of he's polite," Riley said. "Anyhow, it wouldn't kill you to talk about the mine while you're watching. You know, reassure him."
"Look," I said, "when it comes to courting a mark, I wrote the book."
"A mark?" Riley said, getting outraged. "Dang it, McCasland, this is legitimate business, not one of your swindles."
"Same thing, more or less," I said. "The man's got money and we want it." Riley's scowl deepened. "Look, you hammer too much about business," I said, "you start sounding desperate."
We paused to watch Gabe McClintock study another fat pitch. "Strike two!" Reverend Righteous said.
"What in hell's Gabe want?" Riley groused.
"Relax," I said, taking my pard's shoulder. "Prescott's already sold. In a few minutes the train comes in. We introduce Prescott to your uncle. We feed everybody a nice dinner, then we sit back and sign some papers."
"What can go wrong?" I asked. "So smile. Don't give Prescott the notion we're arguing."
Riley tried on a smile that looked as stiff as if on a cigar-store Indian. We traipsed back to our dynamite boxes. The Englishman, in bowler hat, a splendid morning coat, striped pants, and a maroon cravat, hadn't budged. His face held a smile, a genuine one. The man was a treasure, a sharper's dream. Hell, he was worth two of Riley's uncle's danged Testament Mines all by himself.
"Looks like the game's about over, Mr. Prescott," Riley said, working hard at sounding cheerful. "Hope you haven't found it tiresome."
"On the contrary," Prescott spouted. Out on the field there was a minor miracle: Gabe McClintock socked the next pitch over the shortstop's head. The whole town of Buckshot jolted noisily awake.
"I'm enjoying myself immensely," Prescott added, having to shout over the rising din. "The azure sky, the vast openness of this high valley ... the selfsame openness, by the by, that I find in your western American."
"Really?" Riley said. He was wall-eyed, looking at Prescott and the game at the same time.
On the field, McClintock rounded first base, saw the ball relayed from the outfield, and wisely held up.
I threw in, "Us frontier types can be a friendly bunch, all right."
"Indeed," Prescott said. "One hears so much about the American democratic spirit. I find it particularly evident here in the West."
With the crowd quieting in expectation, I noted Blackjack Butler weaving his way to the plate, a player who'd been drinking since the second inning. Riley said over Prescott's shoulder, "Cass, I think Mr. Prescott's buttering us up."
"Why, not a bit," Prescott said. "Take these fellows at the ball match, now—miners and tradesmen all, I shouldn't wonder. Yet they look one in the eye and speak up as one's equal. So, of course, that is how one must take them."
"Hell, yes," I said. "They'd get sore otherwise."
Bleary-eyed Blackjack Butler got his first pitch and mashed it manfully into foul territory. A collective groan was hauled out of the home crowd. Leadville supporters hollered derision right back.
"Our British distinctions of class and so on can be damnably tedious," Prescott said. "Here in your country, I find it refreshing on occasion just to, um, rub elbows." He finished with a powerful laugh, surprising himself.
"Mr. Prescott," Riley said, his face taking on a shine, "you want to rub elbows, Buckshot's the place."
"Oh, I think so," Prescott agreed, and chortled again.
Blackjack Butler watched a pitch go by at earlobe level, which in frontier-style play was close enough. "Strike two," Reverend Righteous said.
"Speaking of democratic spirit," Riley said, and gave me a wink behind Prescott's back to show he was concentrating on money and not baseball. "If the train ever gets here, you'll finally meet my uncle. He's as common as they come. Likes to make out he's a tough customer, but that's all show. The fact is, he likes everybody."
"Excellent," Prescott said. "The prototypical westerner."
Just as we all glanced back at the game, a sound exploded—whock!—a marriage of leather and wood, and the ball shot out past the infield. The Buckshot crowd sucked in its breath, then erupted into frenzy.
"Go!" Riley hollered. Blackjack Butler charged toward first base. Leadville's right fielder gaped at the rising ball, then turned and galumphed deeper into the outfield in clumsy miner's boots. As the ball streaked past him, he chased it in full panic.
"Home!" Riley screamed. "Home, you ninny!"
Prescott held his palms to his ears. Gabe McClintock loped around third. The ball rebounded off the board fence and disappeared into weeds. The Leadville right fielder hunted frantically, then grabbed it up. As McClintock capered across home plate, the outfielder's throw was to second base, calculated to nail the galloping Blackjack Butler.
"Slide!" Riley yelled. So did almost everybody else. Butler set himself horizontally, miner's boots leading, a human missile aimed at the second-base bag. There was a collision of objects: the sliding batsman, the second baseman, the ball. Their meeting threw up enough dust to hide a courthouse.
But when it drifted, Blackjack Butler lay hugging the busted bag, while the second baseman was left with no more than loose straw to step on. "Safe!" came the reverend's verdict.
The home crowd, grasping the improved situation, put their voices into it, whooping like redskins. They fired volleys of pistol shots. They sailed up hats in flocks.
"For Pete's sakes, I'm up," Riley said in real surprise. Prescott, good fellow to his bone marrow, slapped Riley's back. With the celebration dinning around him, my partner got up and picked himself out a hand-whittled bat.CHAPTER 2
Riley at the Bat
THE HOME CROWD MADE A CHANT OF IT. "RI-LEY, RI-LEY ..."
Riley took two practice swings, then grinned sheepishly at Prescott and me. At that point, I put my own voice into it. Baseball may be a Yankee game, while I'm Rebel to the core—a Texan, in fact, unreconstructed as they come. But being partners, after all, involves obligations. "Home run!" I demanded.
Riley took his stance in the batsman's box, showing grim determination. To Prescott, I explained that with Buckshot having two outs and still one run down, and the tying run on second, the game was now Riley's to win or lose.
Prescott blinked twice. He said, "It's exceedingly complex."
"Yankee game," I said. Riley set his cap and cocked his bat high. Leadville's pitcher eyed him with disdain. The pitcher took a rolling stride and loosed the ball—underhanded, as was the style of that day.
Riley drew back his inner springs, then released. There was a modest whap! and the ball bounded toward the shortstop. Riley sprinted down the base path. The throw was high, skimming off the first baseman's fingertips. Riley pounded for second as the tying run, in the person of Blackjack Butler, stomped gleefully across home plate.
All eyes, including mine, followed the racing Riley, until something snagged me. At that moment, rising smoke far beyond the right field fence heralded a locomotive making its showy way toward the head of the valley. The train was coming. I was done with dozing. It was time to do business.
Riley, his eyebrows clamped in concentration, trampled second base underfoot and lit a shuck for third. The home crowd swooned beyond joy and progressed toward delirium. Heavy boots stomped wagon beds, alarming horses. Miners pounded one another's backs. Shots punctuated everything.
The throw to third lacked conviction, pulling the baseman off his bag. Riley, with all his marbles riding, went by like Comanches chased him.
"Riley!" I hollered. "The train ...!"
Into the home stretch he went, his heels pounding, the Lions' catcher and the umpire in his sights. The peg overtook him. The catcher had it, bobbled it, recovered it.
"Slide!" was the cry of hundreds. Riley hurled himself at home plate. As one man, the crowd rose to their feet. I got up too, but for wholly different reasons. "The train, Mr. Prescott! Riley's uncle's finally here."
"Mr. Rufus Joplin at last," Prescott said, and while he was still finishing saying, "I shall be delighted to meet the man," I grabbed him by an arm and hustled him into a flowing crowd.
Bodies blocked our way. Spectators were leaping off wagon beds, springing off their barrel perches. In fact, the crowds on both sidelines were hinging closed like book covers, converging on home plate.
I dragged Prescott through a throng of burly miners. At the center of the melee, I had to shove aside two Buckshot players, one Leadville Lion, and somebody unaffiliated. On the bare ground, ringed by men's boots, lay Riley.
"Pick him up!" came a chant. "The man of the hour! Parade him!"
I sprang in ahead of all of them and captured Riley by the arm. "Quick!" I said.
"I was safe!" Riley exclaimed. He was scratched and bleeding, his clothes matted with dust. "Cass, we won!"
"That doesn't matter now," I said. "Didn't you hear it?"
"The train whistle! Cripes sakes, your uncle's coming!"CHAPTER 3
Gentlemen and Their Wagers
FROM THE BALL FIELD IN THE MEADOW TO THE DEPOT ON THE hillside was a short ride in Riley's uncle's buggy. It was even shorter the way I did it, whipping the horses to a lope and cutting all possible corners.
"Who's all excited now?" Riley wanted to know. I saw his point. The plan, the overall plan, was the thing.
"Uh, so what do you think of our great game of baseball, Mr. Prescott?" Riley asked. "Did you manage to get the drift of it?"
Prescott was busy holding his hat on and keeping his seat. "Whoa down, there, horsies!" I hollered. Riley was right: just what was the rush?
"The termination of the match was most confusing," Prescott admitted. "At what point precisely did play expire? When you circuited the bases and reached home platter?"
"Plate," Riley said.
"Right," I said.
"Because Leadville had already had their nine innings, see?" Riley said. "And since it was Buckshot at the bat—"
Prescott said, "But—"
"So when I scored the go-ahead run, at that point, we'd won her. Savvy?"
"Yes, I ... or rather, not at all. It's damnably confusing, your baseball. Just when one thinks it imitates cricket, it veers off dismayingly."
"You can hardly compare baseball to cricket," Riley said, "because in our game—"
Prescott raised a hand. "With due respect, I believe one must be American to understand it."
I said, "Yankee American, in fact."
"I ... I'm sorry you think so," Riley said, which is a thing about baseballers. They like their game so much they want you to like it, too.
Ahead, the locomotive named the Chuffer—built for climbing grades rather than for speed—had pulled alongside the depot, its nose to the terminus. It was already shutting down, gasping out steam in a showy way and blowing long hoots from its whistle.
"But worry not," Prescott said. "I gather your uncle has enough enthusiasm for baseball to make up for my deficit. It sounds as though he puts more stock in his team than in his mine and his town rolled together."
"That's about the size of it," I said, letting out a little more truth than I ought to have. In those days, baseball had no greater partisan than Riley's uncle.
"And if I didn't follow the game, I shan't let on," Prescott vowed. "You may depend upon me to be politic."
Excerpted from Ace of Diamonds by Bruce H. Thorstad. Copyright © 1994 Bruce H. Thorstad. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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