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CHAPTER VIII.
THE GAME BEGINS.

Jim Snow did not arrive by two-thirty in the afternoon. As the game was called for that hour, Amos Bixler, with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm, requested Merriwell to pitch for the Mavericks. No objection was raised by the Rustlers. All the Mavericks were flying distress signals, for they had seen little and knew less about “the Eastern kid,” as they called Merry. The Rustlers themselves looked rather sad, but for the reason that they had seen just enough of Merry to give them a good, wholesome fear of his pitching abilities.

While the Rustlers and the Tin Cup rooters were heaping abuse upon Jim Snow for his failure to appear, Blunt, Lloyd, Jordan, and a few others were exchanging winks and significant grins. Merriwell, catching a few of these covert glances, became absolutely certain that Snow had been bribed to keep out of the game. Blunt and his friends, of course, had done the bribing, and had brought Frank to the Bar Z Ranch so that he might step into the box for the Mavericks, thus pitting him against Blunt.

The Cowboy Wonder had gone to a vast amount of trouble to bring the matter about. His one consuming desire was to compete with Merriwell at something or other, and to show that he was the better man.

The Cowboy Wonder had gone to a vast amount of trouble to bring the matter about. His one consuming desire was to compete with Merriwell at something or other, and to show that he was the better man.

The Tin Cup athletes wore uniforms of their own devising. Gray flannel shirts had been hacked off at the elbows, and gray trousers of various shades had been hacked off at the knees. A few had stockings, but many more played in their bare skins. Every man of the nine, however, had spiked shoes, evidently purchased new for the occasion. Snow’s shoes had been brought along with the bats, mitts, mask, and protector, and, with a little cotton in the heels and toes, they fitted Merriwell tolerably well.

The Rustlers had secured from somewhere a secondhand outfit of uniforms. They were blue, and much worn, a little off as to fit, yet serving their purpose.

Possibly a hundred cowboys gathered around the diamond. Their methods were violent in the matter of rooting, and they were fiercely partisan and about equally divided in their loyalty.

Possibly a hundred cowboys gathered around the diamond. Their methods were violent in the matter of rooting, and they were fiercely partisan and about equally divided in their loyalty.

The catcher for the Mavericks was a red-headed, beefy sort of fellow, with a squint. Frank had a little talk with him about signals, and, shortly before time for the game to be called, went out for a little preliminary practice. The rest of the Mavericks were “warming up” out on the diamond, and Frank took casual note of them as he tossed the balls to Gib Hackney, the Mavericks’ catcher.

Merry was considerably surprised at the snappy work the Tin Cup fellows were doing. It was rough and ready in spots, but, for the most part, remarkably swift and sure.

When the Rustlers went out, Frank watched them just as he had the Mavericks. The Bar Z fellows, so far as he could judge, were about on a par with their rivals.

Blunt, who was at a little distance from Frank, oiling up his right wing for the scrimmage, also commanded a part of Frank’s attention. Frank expected something a little better than common from Blunt, and was not disappointed. The Wonder had speed, and, apparently, a thorough understanding with Lloyd, the other half of the Rustlers’ battery.

It was within a minute or so of half past two when the umpire put in an appearance. He came from another ranch, whose brand was a “fiddleback,” and consequently would have no favorites to play in the contest. He was short and thick, and had a pair of puttees buckled over his shins. He was introduced to Frank as “Dutch Fritz,” and certainly he looked the part. From a belt that encircled his ample waist there hung a holster, and over the holster’s top peered the handgrip of a “forty-four.”

“You don’t mean to say he’s going to wear that thing during the game!” Merry exclaimed to Jack Lee, who held down the second sack for the Mavericks.

“Sure he is!” exclaimed Lee, with fervor. “Ain’t he the umpire? If he’s put to it, he uses the gun to make his decisions stick.”

Vociferous demands were going up from the spectators for the playing to begin. The Rustlers were already distributed about the diamond, and Blunt was on his way to the pitcher’s box, while Bixler, first man up for the Mavericks, was buckling Lloyd’s chest protector. Dutch Fritz stepped forward and raised a fat hand to command silence. Something like silence having been secured, the umpire spoke:

'Ladies und chentlemen—or, radder, chentlemen midoudt der ladies—dis iss der rubber game bedween der Mafericks und der Rustlers.'

“Ladies und chentlemen—or, radder, chentlemen midoudt der ladies—dis iss der rubber game bedween der Mafericks und der Rustlers. Alretty she shtands vone und vone, und der successors in dis game here dis afternoon vill haf der championships oof der ranch country by Goldt Hill, yas. For der Rustlers, der pattery iss Barzy Blunt und Aaron Lloyd, und for der Mafericks ve half it Frank Merrivell, chunior, und Gip Hackney. Dot iss all vat I know for der present, oxcept oof I make some decisions you don’t like you vill find dot I can shoot fairst. Now, den, ve vill ged pizzy.”

Wading out to his post behind the pitcher, Dutch Fritz tore the paper off a new ball. “Pegin mit it!” said he.

Blunt rolled the ball on the ground, screwed it around in his hands, and then put over two or three before Bixler stepped to the plate. Finally the captain of the Mavericks took his position, and the game was on.

Barzy Blunt had never shown to better advantage than he did at that moment. He was graceful in his work, and, what was more to the purpose, forceful as well. Every motion spoke of an abundance of reserve power.

He had pitched against the Mavericks before, and, presumably, knew the eccentricities of each man on the opposing team, Merriwell alone excepted. In this, of course, he had a big advantage over Merry, who knew nothing about the men on the Bar Z nine.

“Now, Barzy, ole pard,” yelled a Bar Z, rooter, “you know how to find the hole in his hat. Fan the juniper, kid. I got a five-case note fer you if you make it one, two, three.”

“Bix never was known ter fan,” roared one of the Tin Cup men. ‘‘He allers connects with the horsehide! Blame it all, ain’t he a broncho buster? Whale it out, Bix! If ye can’t put it over into next week, day after to-morrow will do!”

Blunt wound up quickly and shot out his arm. The ball left his hand like a ball from a gun. Bixler looked at it, and grinned.

“None o’ that, Blunt!” he called. “Think you can coax me to reach for the wild ones?”

“Shtrike vone!” boomed Dutch Fritz.

Bixler stared at him in surprise and rage. “Put on yer specs, Dutch!” he suggested.

A chorus of groans filled the air from the Tin Cup crowd. Bixler made a face at the next toss, and kept his bat at his shoulder.

“Pall vone!” announced Dutch Fritz, and the Tin Cuppers were mollified.

Blunt started what looked like a fast one, but proved to be slow. Bixler struck too soon, and another strike was called on him.

Then came another ball, quickly followed by an outshoot which so beguiled Bixler that he swatted the empty air and Lloyd pocketed the ball in his mitt. In great disgust, the captain of the Mavericks dropped his bat.

The Bar Z men began to rise up and crow. They tried to be as insulting as possible, and made out fairly well.

“Oh, wait!” answered the Tin Cuppers, “wait till we git ready to begin, Bumby we’ll strike our gait. Don’t you fret, Amos! There’s a hull hatful o’ innings after this.”

Gib Hackney, the catcher, was the next man to face Blunt. The way the Cowboy Wonder made him beat the air for three successive times must have been tremendously discouraging to the Till Cup crowd. But still the visiting rooters took their roasting at the hands of their hosts in splendid self-restraint.

Jack Lee was next. H struck once, fouled once, and then went down ingloriously.

The Bar Z men went wild. They jeered and hooted and finally formed in a line, a dozen of them, and marched arount the Tin Cup delegation, tantalizing them in every way their florid fancies suggested. Frank did not wonder that Murgatroyd feared a riot might result from the afternoon’s enjoyment.

1st half of 1st inning

It was now Frank’s turn to make a showing. He was aware of the almost painful attention the men of the Tin Cup contingent was giving him. They wanted to be hopeful, and yet were filled with a morbid distrust. There was not a cowboy among the Maverick rooters who would not have given a month’s pay to see the Rustlers retired just as their own team had been in the first half of the first innings. Yet hope fluttered dismally, for they realized that they were using a pitcher who was an unknown quantity.

Aaron Lloyd confronted Merriwell. He grinned and made little jabs in the air with the end of his bat.

Frank started with a straight, speedy ball that cut the plate squarely in half. There are players, many of them, who make it a practice to let the first ball go by. Lloyd was one of them.

“Shtrike!” announced Dutch Fritz.

“Well, well!” cried a Tin Cup puncher, poking a head out of his shell of hope and anxiety. “He’s got on snowshoes an’ mebby he’ll travel, arter all.”

Frank gave Lloyd a wide one, and the umpire called a ball. This was followed by a speedy curve, and Lloyd landed on it, somehow, with a crack that could have been heard a mile. It was a hot liner between third and second, and Tyrone, the short stop, booted it, and fumbled it and all but fell down on it. When he was through with his cutting up, he was surprised to find a fielder sending it in to second.

Jack Lee jumped and drew it in out of the air, but Lloyd was on the ball a fraction of a second before Lee came down. “Safe id iss!” said Dtrtch Fritz, and the Bar Z punchers began to exult.

Merry muttered a little. If that ragged support was to keep up, what could he do? Tyrone should have annexed the ball and got it to first for an out. But—well, he hadn’t. It was plain to Merry that the Mavericks, like their rooters, had no confidence in him.

Blunt was next. Merry handed him a jump ball, and the speed caused everybody to sit up and take notice.

“Wow!” exclaimed Amos Bixler, “he’s got his fighting clothes on. See that, you junipers! Don’t tell us we haven’t got a pitcher.”

“Shtrike!” boomed Dutch Fritz.

Blunt had swung at it and missed. The smile he usually wore when his blood was boiling and he felt least joyful, settled about his lips, and his sloe-black eyes began to gleam.

“Now,” thought Merry, “I ought to fan him while he’s feeling like that.”

He offered a high one, which Blunt’s keen eye told him to refuse, and a ball was recorded. Next Frank sent in a speedy “bender.” Again Blunt struck and missed. The Tin Cuppers began to feel encouraged, and the mirthless smile deepened around the batter’s lips.

Probably very few of the spectators knew of the real cause for Merriwell being in that game. Blunt had schemed to put him there, and for the sole purpose of showing that he—Blunt—was the better man. Face to face as he and Merriwell were, now was the time for Blunt to begin manifesting his superiority. Two strikes were already called, and there was not much time left in which to begin.

With fine calculation, Blunt allowed the next ball to pass without giving it his attention. The next ball cut a corner, but the Wonder managed to get to it. The sphere sailed into the air and dropped into a well between Jack Lee and one Spuds, who was playing center. Lee ran back and Spuds ran forward, Tyrone hustling to cover second. Lee and Spuds came together like a couple of brick houses, while Lloyd jogged home add Blunt reached third.

Lee and Spuds had untangled themselves and Spuds had relayed the ball to second, from which bag Tyrone fired it home to Hackney, by way of heading off Blunt, who, however, was feeling quite comfortable on his threebagger—which ought to have been a single.

Merriwell ground his teeth. He was finding as much fault with himself for giving Blunt a hit as he was with Lee and Spuds for indulging in a wrestling match. There was a good deal to Blunt, after all, it seemed.

“No one down, pards,” yelled Johnny Brezee, the Rustlers’ right fielder, then on the coaching line, “and one run an’ two a-comin’. On yer toes, now, all tergether.”

“All aboard fer the b’loon ascension!” whooped a mirthful Bar Z lad. “A leetle early, but here she goes!”

But she didn’t go. Ben Jordan, the next man up, was fanned. Bandy Harrison popped up a fly which Merriwell smothered easily; and then, one “Toofers,” third baseman for the Rustlers, used his swat stick thrice without effect, and Barzy Blunt died on third.

So ended the first inning, with the Rustlers leading by the one and only score so far recorded, with the Bar Z outfit hooting and yelling, and the Tin Cuppers dismal, depressed, and slowly working toward a riot.

“Ye’re doin’ well in spots, Merriwell,” said Bixler, as Frank came in.

“I’m not the only fellow that’s showing his spots.” Frank laughed. “Wait till I’m limbered up, Bixler.”

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