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St. Louis, Missouri—1882
"I must be addlepated, Grant Chambers, accompanying you to a match game of Base Ball!" Carrie clutched her brother's arm to keep her footing in the jostling crowd. "I've always heard spectators at these matches are uncouth, and now I know it for math."
Excitement sparkled in the eyes laughing down at her, their rich brown color so different from the blue of her own. "You won't be sorry you've come, I promise. One day you'll tell your grandchildren you saw the great Dexter Riley play for the St. Louis Browns' first American Association match. You'll love the match, you'll see, and you'll love Dexter, too. Everyone does."
She pressed closer against Grant's side, lifting her chin until it barely reached his shoulder in order to make herself better heard above the crowd. "It would be rather inappropriate for me to entertain such strong emotions toward a young man on first acquaintance. Especially a base ballist, whom everyone knows tend to be ... ungentlemanly. I expect Emmet might object to such a reaction on my part, also."
Grant's hand cut through the air in careless dismissal. "Emmet Wilson is a good man, but he's not to be compared to the likes of Riley. Even if you are half-engaged to Wilson." His chuckle rang out. "Though I have to admit, Wilson's likely better marriage material than a base ballist."
Grant had been singing the base ballist's praises since the men became friends at Washington University two years ago. Each time Grant wrote a letter home or visitedher and their parents in Ridgeville, their small hometown one hundred miles to the west, Mr. Riley's name and virtues had been lavishly sprinkled throughout his conversation. The man's primary virtue was apparently his Base Ball abilities.
Grant might think a man a king simply because he could catch and strike a ball, but a man had to accomplish far more than that to win her respect, she thought. Most importantly, he had to love the Lord, as Emmet did.
The crowd of smoking, hurrying men pushed the two along toward Sportsman's Park, where the match game would take place between St. Louis and Louisville.
"Oof!" A large masculine elbow barely covered by a shabby jacket sleeve caught her in the chest, and she lost her hold on Grant's arm. She stopped short, one hand pressed against the front of her garnet basque jacket, and stared at the man's back in disbelief. He hadn't even bothered to apologize!
"Hey, sister, git movin' or git out of the way." A heavily whiskered face scowled at her beneath a derby three sizes too small.
The man moved on before she could turn her sputtering protest into words, but out of sheer fear of being trampled, she took his advice.
Grant's slim hand closed about one of her elbows. "Turned around and couldn't see you for a minute. Best stick close to me."
She'd "stick" all right! Why had she ever agreed to join him?
"The Louisville club is coming!"
"Out of the way for the Eclipse club!"
Carrie looked sharply about at the crowd's calls, careful not to stop in order to do so this time. A colorful hone-drawn trolley, its warning bell clanging loudly and ineffectually, made its way through the pedestrian-filled road.
Catcalls and derisive comments concerning the Louisville club's playing ability and integrity came from every side. The base ballists returned the insults with good humor, hut Carrie's face heated in shame at the crowd's rude manners.
She smiled at a wide-eyed, jaw-dropping group of boys watching the slow-moving conveyance enter Sportsman's Park. They should be involved in more edifying pursuits than Base Ball, she thought, but their misdirected hero-worship was rather amusing.
Grant grabbed her upper arm and pointed to the back of a man nearing the boys. The man wasn't overly tall, maybe five feet and eight inches; taller than her own five foot one but not as tall as Grant. The stranger was compactly built, with wide, powerful shoulders beneath his wall-cut jacket. The typical black bowler covered all but a couple inches of russet brown hair that appeared neatly trimmed above the back of his collar. In one hand he carried a long, thin leather bag.
"That's him!" One of Grant's arms pierced the air. "Dexter! Over here! Over here, Riley!"
He shouldered his way through the crowd, dragging Carrie unceremoniously along behind him. When they finally reached his hero, the player was speaking to a raggedly dressed lad of about twelve. Dexter flashed Grant a smile of recognition before continuing his conversation, and Carrie had a glimpse of a pleasant wide face with smiling green eyes above a large mustache that completely hid his top lip.
His attention returned to the boy. "You here with a friend?"
The boy nodded his dirt-covered face, eyes wide in awe. He pointed to a lanky boy beside him dressed as shabbily as himself.
"What's your name?"
"Here to see the match?"
Jack swallowed audibly. "Can't. Costs a quarter."
"Maybe we can strike a business deal. Could use a lad to watch over my willow while I change into my uniform and when our club is in the field. Be worth twenty-five cents to me."
"Wow, Mr. Riley! Truly?"
Riley nodded sharply. "Willing to take the job?"
"Yes sir, Mr. Riley, sir!"
Grant leaned close to Carries ear. "Dexter always does that. Boy carrying the bat gets into the grounds free, and the quarter lets the boy's friend join him."
A sliver of admiration slipped reluctantly into her estimation of Grant's friend.
Riley handed the bat bag and a quarter to the boy and turned to Grant, reaching to shake hands, a grin topping the wide jaw beneath the thick mustache. "Glad you could make it to the match. Did your family arrive safely?"
"Yes, thanks. Father's being interviewed this afternoon for the position with the local church I told you about, and Mother's with him. Have to be introduced to the people in charge, you know, and see whether they can pass muster. But my sister, Carrie, is with me." Grant's hand drew her forward. "This is her first match, do you believe it? Nineteen years old and never seen a Base Ball match!"
Dexter touched thick, crooked fingers to the brim of his bowler and nodded at her respectfully. Unexpectedly long lashes rayed above green eyes that kindled with sudden interest. His eyes were the color of new leaves in spring, alive with the glow of sunshine. His gaze touched the thick black hair swirled sedately beneath her bonnet, dropped to the nose—was he noticing the smattering of freckles?—before meeting her eyes again.
Carrie's gloved hand clutched the embroidered revers of her garnet basque. It felt as if her heart had simply fallen out and tumbled at his feet, right in front of his dirt-covered shoes. She barely stopped herself from glancing down to see whether she could sight it them. A laugh gurgled up within her at the fanciful thought.
And she'd believed friendship with Emmet and her high ideals made her immune to such schoolgirl emotions! Well, surely this inane reaction would pass, like a bad case of croup. The admiration she saw reflected in his eyes didn't help her self-control though she noticed her heart was back where it belonged, beating wildly against her ribs. She, knew her own eyes reflected a similar admiration for him to see, but she didn't know how to hide it.
His look lingered. "I'm delighted to make your acquaintance. I hope you'll enjoy the match."
She gave him a tremulous smile. There was a pleasant hint of controlled Irish accent beneath his words. "I wish you and your club well this afternoon. I understand it's a special match game."
His smile shot into a boyish grin. His glance darted away and back again, making him appear as embarrassed as a schoolboy being teased over a girl. "Yes, well, at least to us in the clubs it's special."
She liked his modesty, liked his evident enjoyment of his work ... if one could call playing Base Ball work.
He turned his attention back to Grant. "I'd best be getting along. I'm not even in uniform yet, and the Louisville club has already arrived."
Grant gave Dexter's shoulder a hail-fellow slap. "See you show them how Base Ball is meant to be played, old man."
Dexter's gaze darted back to her. "Why don't we join your parents at their hotel for dinner after the match, Grant?"
"They're dining with the present pastor, but Carrie and I will be available. But, say, won't you be dining with the rest Of the Browns?"
His wide shoulders lifted his jacket in a nonchalant shrug. "I'll have to put in an appearance, but if it's like any normal after-match dinner, it will be primarily a liquid feast. I'll be glad for a legitimate excuse to leave early."
"We'll expect you at the Planter's Hotel, then. Say, you plan to bring your sister, don't you?"
Carrie glanced at Grant out of the corner of her eye. His question had a transparently casual tone.
Dexter's teasing grin added to her suspicion. "Expect she might be persuaded to endure your company for an evening."
His glance dipped to her face for a long moment before he turned away, making her suddenly feel it was very important to him that she be at the dinner.
The boy and his friend hurried along beside him, swelling visibly at their obvious association with the man being greeted by spectators on every side as they made their way across the grounds.
She liked the way Dexter Riley carried himself, his back straight but not stiff, his wide shoulders loose, his head high, his steps easy with almost a bounce to it.
She recalled the crooked fingers he had touched to his hat. "What happened to his hands, Grant? His fingers looked as if they might have been broken."
"Most of them have been broken, some more than once. Man can't play ball for years without some broken fingers. After all, nothing between their hands and a flying ball but a thin piece of leather, if that."
Ten minutes later Carrie looked down at the unpainted, backless wooden bench in distaste, holding her gray skirt away in case of dirt or snags. Was this where she was expected to spend the afternoon, on a hard piece of wood amidst a crowd of uncouth men? And these were the better seats, in the grandstand, with at least the pretense of cover in the wooden canopy overhead.
"Hey, lady, sit yerself down. Think yet made of glass? A man's gotta see the field, ya know."
Carrie sat down abruptly and felt the wood smartly through the layers of cloth beneath her wire bustle. She couldn't remember when she'd been spoken to so rudely by so many men in one day! Were all the men in St. Louis except Grant and Mr. Riley ignorant of proper etiquette?
A man inched down the aisle six feet away, a white apron covering his trousers, one arm balancing a tray of large, amber-filled steins over his brown-and-white-striped hat, which fit his fat head closely and had a brim only in the front. She wondered how he managed to keep from spilling the steins' contents with the crowd shoving him about and the tray tipping one direction and then another, like a boat on the nearby Mississippi River on a choppy day. She indicated the man to Grant. "What has he on his tray?"
Hot red color surged over Grant's narrow face. He shifted his gaze quickly to the parklike field before them. "Beer."
Carrie closed her mouth, all too aware her bottom lip had fallen in a most unbecoming manner. She touched one hand gloved in thin garnet cotton to her high-standing jacket collar. "Oh, my!"
One could as well be in a drinking establishment! And they had each paid fifty cents for the "privilege" of a hard, backless seat in the grandstand amidst a sweaty crowd of rude men on a warm May day with beer being served all about in the most open, careless manner! What would members of the congregation for which their father was being considered even this minute think if they knew? Thank the good Lord no one here would recognize her and Grant as his children!
Not that the Lord could possibly approve of their attendance, whether they were recognized or not. Her glance swept the crowded seats. There weren't more than half a dozen other women in the grandstand, though there were more in the cheaper, uncovered seats. Why had she ever allowed Grant to talk her into attending?
No matter why. There could be no excuse for remaining. She shot determinedly to her feet.
Grant frowned up at her. "What's wrong?"
"But the match is about to begin."
A loud roar from the stands swallowed her reply. The crowd surged to its feet. Carrie looked about, bewildered.
Grant, on his feet besides her now, grasped her arm. "The clubs are entering the grounds."
"But I mustn't stay. It's worse than I imagined."
The crowd noisily returned to its seats, and the large man behind her poked her shoulder with a blunt finger. "Look, lady, either sit yerself down or move."
She turned to leave, but a dozen large, masculine knees were between her and the aisle. She saw at least as many obstacle in the other direction. Defeated, she took her seat, her back even stiffer than her corset demanded. Surely there would be an opportunity to depart later; she'd watch for it.
The men from the Louisville club spread out across the parklike field. "They certainly present a colorful view, I shall admit that much."
Grant grunted. "Look plain silly if you ask me. American Association decided instead of the traditional club uniforms, the players would dress according to their position. For instance, the Louisville hurler is wearing that sky blue shirt."
Carrie saw the man he meant standing in the middle of the diamond-shaped ground. His belt and cap matched the silk top, which laced up the front. "Hurler?"
"He tosses the ball to the batsman."
"What color does Mr. Riley wear?"
"Red and black striped. He's center fielder. He says these uniforms won't last long. The players are already protesting them and insisting on returning to regular uniforms."
Carrie was at a loss to understand the rules of the sport. Grant spent an inordinate amount of time explaining what was happening and why, much to the fury of the man behind her. Carrie was amazed the man could hear Grant speak, for she had difficulty hearing him herself. Hollers and jeers from spectators filled the air until she thought she could see as well as hear the sound. Men hawked beer up and down the aisles. A local band played music when the clubs switched positions on the field.
She was inordinately pleased when Mr. Riley, at his first attempt as batsman, managed to run all the way around the field. His clubmates pounded him on the back, wide grins beneath their mustaches. When the clubs changed positions and Mr. Riley was playing in center field, he caught one of the flying balls, rendering the opposing batsman "out," according to Grant, and the clubs changed positions once again.
The next time Mr. Riley was batsman, the man behind her and a number of men around him rose in a roar of venomous taunts. Horrified, Carrie grasped Grant's arm and demanded an explanation. Grant's smile was wide. His brown eyes danced with unbridled excitement. "They must be from Louisville. Riley's such a good player that they're trying to upset his concentration."
"Where is their sense of justice and fair play?"
His smile only widened. "No such thing in Base Ball. Any player worth his salt can take this kind of abuse from the kranks without it affecting his play."
Grant's hand waved casually while he turned his attention back to the field, where Riley stood beside the white rubber square. "Male spectators, are called kranks. Ladies are kranklets."
A high-pitched "thunk" sounded when Riley's bat struck the ball. It flew straight above him and came down between him and a mall Grant called the catcher. The catcher tossed the ball back to the hurler, and Riley took up the batsman's normal stance.
The crowd surged to their feet again, their roar increasing.
Disgusted, Carrie rose, too, weaving her head back and forth, attempting to view the field through the people.
Beside her, Grant cupped freckled hands about his lips. "Murder the ball, Riley!"
The man behind them shoved a huge hand against Grant's shoulder. "Hey, what's the big idea, rootin' fer the Browns?"
Imagine this loud, uncouth man upbraiding them for supporting their friend! Just as though this wasn't America, where one might speak one's own mind. Or yell one's own sentiments at a ball park. Her fists settled momentarily where her tailored basque covered her lips. She glared into the ruddy, bewhiskered face towering above her. "We shall call for whomever we please, sir!"
Turning about, she cupped her gloved hands delicately about her own mouth and rather timidly repeated Grant's call.
Grant burst out in pure laughter. Carrie flushed.
A loud crack sounded through the park, and she saw the ball whiz across the field. Riley hurtled toward the first sandbag, his powerful legs in their knee-high brown socks pumping madly.
All decorum fell away. "Run, Mr. Riley, run!" she screamed.
By the time Dexter Riley was back at the Home Base, Carrie's throat was sore from the strain of its unaccustomed use, Dexter's clubmates were leaping about him like a group of uniformed frogs, and the kranks behind her were using language more colorful than the clubs' uniforms. She felt an immense satisfaction at Dexter's accomplishment and her own choice to cheer him on.