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Hungry Hurler: The Homecoming
By Clair Bee
Broadman & Holman PublishersCopyright © 2002 Randall K. and Cynthia Bee Farley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAn Ugly Encounter
HOMEWARD BOUND! The examination period was drawing to a close, and State University students were removing posters from their dorm room walls, boxing books, stereos, and computers, and excitedly packing their suitcases. The first students to leave were already stowing their gear in their cars or waiting in line at every counter at University Airport. Downtown, students jammed the University Amtrak station. Most were dressed casually in anticipation of their summer holidays. All lugged suitcases and backpacks filled with clothes and dorm treasures and gifts for family and friends back home.
The chatter and excitement at the train station rose to a crescendo, but many students paused to glance in admiration at the five male athletes gathered together near Track 7. The five were waiting for the train that would carry Chip Hilton to Valley Falls. These five athletes, campus heroes, were conference champs and members of State University's star-studded baseball team-key players who had fought hard but lost out the previous Saturday in the final game for the NCAA National Tournament.
Biggie Cohen was the biggest athlete in the group. Biggie stood six-four and weighed 240 pounds. Next to him stood Chip Hilton, State University's starpitcher. He stood four inches over six feet also but weighed in at 185 pounds. Chip's short, unruly blond hair topped off a pleasant face with friendly gray eyes. He had wide, sloping shoulders and big hands, the marks of an athlete. The other three students were all around six feet in height and solidly built. All five were hometown friends and had played sports together for Coach Henry Rockwell at Valley Falls High School before coming to State three years earlier.
As the five friends talked quietly among themselves, Soapy Smith, Chip's battery mate, stared intently at Chip. Soapy's bright-red hair set off a sunburned face dusted with freckles. Today, as he closely searched Chip's face, Soapy's eyes were a dimmer shade of their usual bright-blue color, looking like the ocean on an overcast day. "You feel all right?" he asked Chip.
"Of course I do, Soapy. Stop worrying and quit looking over your shoulder."
"How can I? It was my fault," Soapy grimaced.
"No," Biggie growled. "I lost the game when I fumbled the ball."
Chip knew his pals were trying to shoulder the blame for the loss of the championship game, trying to ease the bitterness that had been chewing at their hearts ever since Western defeated them for the national championship. "Cut it out," he said shortly. "Pitchers lose the games."
Speed Morris shook his head, and his large hand squeezed Chip's shoulder. "I wish we were going with you, man."
"No big deal," Red chimed in. "We'll all be home Saturday. Don't worry, Chip. Soapy and I will make sure we bring the rest of your stuff with us in the car."
"How come Doc wanted you home tonight?" Soapy asked.
"You've got me, Soapy. All I know is that Doc sent me an E-mail saying to be in Valley Falls tonight. Here, read this. I printed his message out." Chip unzipped his backpack and pulled out a folded piece of white paper.
Soapy unfolded the message and studied it with Speed, Biggie, and Red looking over his shoulder.
CAPTAIN CHIP HILTON www.chiphilton.com
Hi Chip, Your mother said your exams are completed. I would appreciate your coming home to Valley Falls on Thursday. I have a possible important summer job for you, and there's a meeting I need you to attend on Friday morning. There's a problem-some personal trouble-and I need your help.
Sincerely, Dr. R. Jones
"Sounds kind of mysterious. What do you think he means by 'personal trouble'?" Soapy asked, returning the E-mail.
"I don't know, Soapy."
"It doesn't really sound like Doc," Speed offered, frowning. "And it's hard to imagine him sending an E-mail, isn't it?" The observation was met with grins.
"Hey, here she comes!" Red called. The Amtrak train braked and glided past them before grinding to a stop.
Chip grabbed his duffel bags and hoisted his backpack to his shoulder. Soapy quickly tucked the latest issue of Sports Illustrated into the side pocket of the backpack. He patted the bag. "For the train, Chipper!"
Chip waved good-bye to his four friends and climbed aboard. At the top of the stairway, he turned and lifted his right hand in a farewell salute. "See you Saturday, guys!"
The smell of strong coffee and the humid air of the train assaulted Chip's senses as soon as he entered the passenger car. He quickly found his seat and stowed his duffels. Grinning, he remembered to pull the magazine out of his backpack before placing it on the railing above his head. After the train pulled out of University Station, Chip watched the city fade into countryside and then glanced through the magazine. But he couldn't concentrate.
His thoughts sped back to the previous Saturday's championship game and the pitching problem that had plagued him ever since he had beaned a Southwestern batter during a conference game. Gradually he forced the unpleasant occurrence out of his thoughts and focused instead on Valley Falls and Doc Jones and the summer job that was so important.
His thoughts shifted to his mother, and his chest tightened. His father, William "Chip" Hilton Sr., had lost his life in an accident at the Valley Falls Pottery many years ago. Over time, his mom had worked her way up into management at the phone company in Valley Falls. Somehow she had managed to hold onto their house and built a home for the two of them. She had gotten him through high school. And now, although he was helping with his college expenses by working, his mom was still carrying most of the burden. Someday, Chip had promised himself, he would make it up to her.
It was a restful trip, but he was glad when it was over. The train slowed down for the Valley Falls railroad yards, and Chip lifted his bags down from the rack and glanced at his watch. In a few minutes he would learn what it was all about. He would know more about the job Doc Jones had lined up, and, above all, he would know what his old friend meant by "personal trouble."
Chip looked out the window. It was a beautiful June afternoon and white, fleecy clouds hovered almost motionless in the sky. The bright sun, slowly dipping in the west, cast a warm glow on the landscape. Familiar sights met his eyes now: the long rows of railroad cars standing on the yard tracks and, beyond these, the gentle river where he had learned to swim. The wide, placid stream meandered through the center of town, and little ripples from the current caught and glistened in the sunlight.
"Valley Falls!" the trainman called from the front of the car. "This way out."
Chip was the first person down the steps to the platform. He knew his mother would just be getting off work, but he looked for her just the same. He spotted Doc Jones moving toward him. The large man still walked at a fast pace, but Chip noticed he favored his right leg a little and so his gait was slightly lopsided. His old friend's face was wreathed in smiles, and Chip breathed a sigh of relief. Doc appeared to be in good health.
John Schroeder, Chip's former employer, and Petey Jackson, the new manager and soon-to-be owner of the Sugar Bowl, followed Doc. They met in the center of the platform, and Chip dropped his bags and shook hands with each of his old friends. Petey picked up the duffel bags then and led the way through the crowd. Doc Jones and John Schroeder, who were both talking to Chip at the same time, each grabbed one of his arms, and the three of them followed Petey.
Up ahead on the landing, in front of the main waiting room, several young men in their late teens or early twenties were lounging in front of the doorway. Chip glanced up just in time to see them suddenly close ranks in front of Petey Jackson. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they left no room for Petey to pass through.
"Look who's here," one of them said, affecting an air of surprise. "If it isn't the Sugar Bowl boy! And a big shot sports figure."
"Are you crazy?" another chimed in. "He's no big shot. Petey's just the manager of the town ball club. You know-the cellar dwellers."
Petey moved to the right and then to the left, but each time one of them blocked his path. "Come on, guys," he pleaded, "we're in a hurry."
"We're in a hurry," a mocking voice echoed.
Petey tried once more to walk around the group. This time, a taller, heavier man waved his companions aside and shoved Petey roughly back. "You aren't going anywhere until we're ready."
Chip, seeing this, was torn by a sudden, violent burst of anger. Petey was an old friend, and he wasn't going to stand by and watch him be humiliated. Struggling to fight back the anger that engulfed him, he started forward. But Doc Jones beat him to it. He sprang quickly up the steps and moved purposefully toward the leader. "What are you trying to do?" he demanded sharply. "Move out of the way."
"Sure, Doc," the husky fellow said condescendingly. "Don't get all worked up. We just wanted to have a little fun with Petey. You know how it is-"
"No, I don't know how it is," Doc Jones retorted angrily. "Now move out of the way."
"Sure, Doc," the fellow said mockingly. "Sure."
The arrogant posture and taunting tone filled Chip with an urge to knock the grin off the speaker's face. He moved forward, half hoping the leader would remain in Doc's path. But the bulky fellow winked at his companions and moved slowly to one side.
Chip scanned their faces, noting the cocky, amused expressions. Then he looked squarely at the leader, sizing him up. The face was familiar, but Chip couldn't place him. He was about nineteen, maybe twenty, six-two, but at least fifteen pounds heavier than Chip. The fellow smiled mockingly before turning away. Chip reluctantly followed Doc into the station. "I won't forget you," he said softly to himself.
Doc's car was parked across the street in front of the bus station and right in the middle of the space reserved for taxis. Doc was a special person in Valley Falls, and Chip was usually intrigued by the physician's eccentricities. Now, however, he was upset. The ugly events of the past few minutes had left him shocked and angry. There had to be some connection between Doc's E-mail and the ugly encounter.
Doc got into the car without a word, and Petey Jackson placed Chip's bags in the backseat. Chip turned to say good-bye to his other two friends as John Schroeder grasped his hand. "See you tomorrow morning, Chip."
"Drop in tomorrow at the Sugar Bowl," Petey added soberly. "Doc said something might happen."
Chip was still upset, and Petey's reference to a meeting occupied his thoughts for only a second. He got in the front seat, and the physician drove slowly and carefully up Main Street. Doc's face was still flushed with anger; the older man was deep in thought. His old friend's preoccupation gave Chip a chance to review the incident at the station. Why had those fellows acted that way toward Petey?
When he and Petey had worked together at the Sugar Bowl, Petey had been a fighter. No one pushed Petey around in those days. There was only one way to find out, Chip concluded.
"What was wrong with those guys, Doc?" he suddenly asked.
"I wish I knew," Jones said grimly.
"The big guy, the leader ... was that Jerry Blaine?"
Doc nodded. "That was Jerry Blaine. You know the family."
Chip knew the Blaines, and he remembered Jerry. They were a big family, all boys and men it seemed. The Blaine name was synonymous with trouble. "Yes," Chip said, "I know them. But what made them act that way?"
"There's nothing else to do in this town," Jones said bitterly.
"Jerry and those fellows at the station-do they have anything to do with the trouble you mentioned in your E-mail?"
"I'd rather not talk about it just now," Doc said, glancing sideways at Chip. "Anyway, you'll find out soon enough. There's a town board meeting at nine o'clock tomorrow morning in Mayor Brooks's office, and I'd like to take you along. All right?"
Changing the subject, Doc commented, "I bet you're looking forward to getting home and seeing your mother."
"Yes! I can't wait! It's been a long time."
Doc drove up the hill and turned onto Beech Street. The tree-lined road flooded Chip with memories of his boyhood. Doc pulled into the driveway at 131 Beech Street and honked the horn. The large oak tree beside the white colonial house was alive with fresh buds, and Mary Hilton's pink and white impatiens lined both sides of the walk.
Just then Mary Hilton walked onto the porch and then hurried down the steps to greet her son, her blond hair streaked golden by the early evening sunlight. The blast from the horn had startled Hoops, the gray cat. He was eyeing the scene and stretching to wakefulness on his favorite wicker chair on the front porch.
"This is a wonderful surprise," Mary Hilton said happily, hugging Chip. "I just got home myself. When Doc told me you would be home tonight, I could scarcely believe it. I didn't expect you until Saturday with the rest of the boys."
"Thanks for the ride, Doc," Chip said, pulling his bags out of the backseat. "It was nice of you to meet me."
Mary Hilton nodded in agreement. "That goes for me, too, Doc."
The old physician grunted and shifted the car into gear. "I'll pick you up tomorrow morning at 8:30," he said. Then, as the car backed slowly out of the driveway and into the street, he added, "You're going to run head-on into the biggest challenge of your life."
Excerpted from Hungry Hurler: The Homecoming by Clair Bee Copyright © 2002 by Randall K. and Cynthia Bee Farley
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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